Challenging the Dominant Narrative of Veterans’ Day Through a Study of Navajo Code Talkers

Today is Veterans’ Day. This morning, I asked my students to take five minutes to draw a picture of a veteran. The majority of my students drew a white man, and I wasn’t surprised. When we searched “veteran” on Google Images, we saw the same thing.

While many white men have served our country in the military, is does our students and our country a disservice to center their stories, while continuing to marginalize the stories of women and POC. I do not find it appropriate to discount the service of white men in the military, but I do find it necessary to honor a more inclusive and honest story of the United States military history.

The best way to challenge dominant narratives is by questioning them, so, that’s what we did. I followed a simple framework that could be used with any counter narrative. I chose to center Navajo Code Talkers because we’re studying World War II, and will also be talking about indigenous people in our discussion of Thanksgiving narratives next week. You could, however, substitute the narrative of the code talkers with any other military counter narrative.

Framework

  • What does a veteran look like?
  • How might this stereotype be harmful and/or inaccurate?
  • What can we learn about to challenge this dominant narrative?
  • How can we connect this counter narrative to our present day lives?
  • What should we do about it?

Through these steps, we are :

  1. uncovering the dominant narrative
  2. questioning the dominant narrative
  3. de-centering the dominant narrative
  4. centering a counter narrative
  5. moving towards action

 

1. What does a veteran look like?

Upon walking into class today, I asked students to take five minutes to draw a veteran. After drawing their pictures, we discussed: Who drew a man? Who drew a woman? I took tally marks on the board as I surveyed their responses. Who drew a white person? Black person? Latinx person? Asian? With only five minutes to draw, none of my students had time to add color. I rephrased the question to, “while you were drawing, what were you imagining the skin color of this person was?”

We then searched “veteran” on Google Images, and saw the same results. We discussed why this stereotype of a veteran is inaccurate and harmful, (who is included this narrative? who is excluded?), and I told students that we would be challenging this dominant narrative through a study of the Navajo Code Talkers.

 

2. Learning About the Navajo Code Talkers

During our reading and social studies block, we read “The Unbreakable Code,” by Sara Hoagland Hunter, while stopping to discuss indigenous boarding schools, the ways in which the US government relates to people of color when they are needed/not needed, and why people of color continue to fight for the United States in the midst of such complex relations. Students were able to make some good connections to our study of the Bracero program from this same time period. (We are currently using one of my old World War II blog based lessons to learn about World War II).

Next, students read an informational article about the code talkers from Newsela. After these two readings, students now have a firm understanding of the code talkers and their role in World War II. The last question students were asked to answer on their article annotations was, “how do you think code talker veterans should be honored today?” This was a springboard for our next exploration, which we will continue with this week.

 

3. How are Navajo Code Talkers (and many veterans) treated today?

I assigned students this Newsela article about Navajo veterans struggling to find adequate housing. This article does a really great job of tying in the current day struggles of veterans, and the disconnect we see between the way the United States claims to honor its veterans, and the everyday realities faced by many US veterans, and especially veterans of color.

 

4. What Should We Do About It?

After all three of our readings, students will complete this comparison assignment of the two readings (tying in all of the reading standards we are covering this week), and will sum it all up with their choice of a short writing assignment. Their options are to write to one of the following prompts:

  • explain three ways the United States could/should honor Navajo veterans
  • write a letter to a Navajo veteran, thanking them for their service and explaining why their work was so important
  • explain why it’s important to challenge the dominant narrative of a veteran

 


That’s it! As I mentioned above, this lesson could easily focus on any other counter narrative, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, WASPs, etc.


Extended Resources for Teaching the Code Talkers:

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