An old Navajo Indian gathers his grandchildren around him to tell them a story. Like a rug maker at his loom, he slowly begins to weave a tale about his youth; about a time when the sacred ways of the Navajo were frowned upon by the bilagaanaa, the white people. Yet, in order to survive in the white man’s world, all Navajos are pressed to give up their culture, their language, even their names. Also, for a Native American to have any hope of escaping poverty and despair, they needed to be educated in white schools. Kii Yazhi is among the many Navajo youth who are shipped off their reservation to attend boarding school. Almost immediately after arriving, the students are virtually stripped of their cultural identity. They trade in their unique clothing for uniforms, are given English names (Kii Yazhi became Ned Begay), and worst of all, the speaking of the Navajo language is forbidden. Any student who forgot this rule received a mouthful of soap. “Tradition is the enemy of progress” is the motto of the school, “[a]nything that belonged to the Navajo way was bad.” Wanting to make his family proud, Ned works hard to adapt to the ways of the bilagaanaa.
It was during this time that World War II begins. Navajo men throughout the reservation are eager to join in the fight to defend Nihima, meaning “Our Mother,” the Navajo name for the United States. A recruiter comes to the reservation with the specific task of gathering a select group of English-speaking Navajos for “special duty” in the Marines. Ned is eager to sign up, but is too young to join. He lies about his age (with his parent’s blessing), and is accepted into the Marines. After boot camp, Ned learns of the “special duty.” The Japanese have been able to crack every military code that the Americans have devised. With their unique and complicated language, the Navajo Marines were called upon to come up with an unbreakable code (Ned notes the irony of how the white people had tried to snuff out the Navajo language, only to encourage its use when it aided in the war effort). In complete secrecy, the Navajo Marines develop an undecipherable code that only they could interpret. This code will remain unbroken throughout the remainder of the war. Ned survives the war and comes home to find that there is still a battle to fight, a battle against the prejudice of some who feel that Native Americans are stupid and lazy.
Now a grandfather, Ned passes the lessons of his youth onto the next generation; to know of the great things that the Navajo people accomplished, to be proud of their heritage and language, and to never forsake the Navajo way.