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Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Laura Tohe on Code Talkers, Culture, and Celebrating Female Role Models

Laura Tohe, Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, librettist, and an award-winning author, visited Lincoln School to speak with the greater community and Upper, Middle, and Lower School students this week. She spoke about what it means to be Diné, told stories of her father and his compatriots who played an instrumental part in fighting World War II, honored the women who came before her and acted as leaders, and much more.

“Ya’at’eeh,” she opened with. “Hello. I am Sleepy Rock People Clan born for the Bitter Water Clan. I am Diné also known as Navajo. I am Native American and an Indigenous American, and I am very happy to be here today with all of you.” 

Her public talk focused on Nihizaad béé Nidasiibaa’, 30 Navajo Code Talkers selected by the U.S. Marines who used their language to help fight World War II through the development of an unbreakable code sent over radio waves in the South Pacific. Tohe’s father Benson Tohe, was one of the code talkers who transmitted secret messages across the airwaves to contribute to the war, always error-free and undecipherable by the Japanese.

Tohe’s recent book, Code Talker Stories, published in 2012, in which she interviewed 20 of the still-living Code Talkers' original 30-person crew. 

“This was the era of assimilation, when Native American students all over America were being forced to assimilate to mainstream America, which meant to erase Indiginous languages,” said Tohe. “But it was that same language that was being used to save America.”

Her work was critical to preserving these stories—the last of the living Code Talkers, Fleming Begaye Sr., passed away in May 2019 at the age of 97. 

In Tohe’s talk with the students, she focused on her own personal store—her life, culture, role models, and accomplishments to date. 

“I am immensely grateful and indebted to the women who raised me—my grandmothers, mother, teachers, and friends. These are strong, independent women, women who are or were in charge of themselves and their families,” said Tohe. “They are leaders in our family and in our community. They taught me so much about my culture, and about myself. They truly are my role models.” 

Tohe is now the author of five books, countless poems, and two librettos, but did not grow up dreaming of becoming a writer despite her deep love of words, stories, language, and books. She wanted to grow up to be an office worker, a doctor, a psychologist, or a public administrator, but found her calling penning pieces about her culture. Her books include No Parole Today, Making Friends with Water, Sister Nations, Tséyi, and Deep in the Rock. 

She ended her talk with Lower School students with some prompts to help them find their own paths: 

Who do you admire and why?
What will be your life story? 
How will you make life better for you, your family, community and your nation?

Tohe ended with: “This has been my life as a poet, so far. Ahe’hee. Thank you.”

This event was made possible due to the generous support of the Joseph R. and Jeffrey R. Paolino Fund.