In Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac, Ned Begay tells a story about a training exercise he and several other Navajos participated in with their group on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Half of the Big Island is rain forest and the other half is desert, so you could experience all kinds of terrain. Our maneuvers took place out in the desert, which looked very much like our own Dinetah. It even had some of the same plants.
It’s very much true that the Big Island is split between two very different habitats–the western side of the island, where Kona is located, is very much dry, and the eastern side, where Hilo is, is rain forest. I do remember seeing prickly pear cactus on the Kona side, and lots of ranch land–bare expanses of dry grasses and spiky lava rock terrain.
But I wondered just how alike the two places really look. I’ve visited the Big Island twice, and both times we traveled all over the island, staying in both Kona and Hilo, going into Waipo Valley, and viewing the volcano (the second time from a helicopter). The first time we visited, we lived in Wisconsin and I hadn’t been to New Mexico in many years. The second time was just last year, and I do remember noticing similarities between the Kona desert and my new(ish) California desert home.
See if you can tell which pictures below are from New Mexico and which are from the Kona side of the Big Island of Hawaii. To be fair, the middle set are actually from Kauai and Bear’s Ears in Utah, but I love how similar they look.
I love the story the narrator tells, of the Navajos not touching the water in their canteens, but surviving off the water from the cactus while the rest of the Marines, including the lieutenant are dropping from heat exhaustion and lack of water. Yes, it’s a stereotype of the wise Native American who can live off the land while the know-it-all gringo depends on his modern know-how and just about dies. But, after all, there is some truth to certain stereotypes, and at least it’s one that is told at the expense of the white man and not the Navajo. This is the type of story about Native Americans that my father would love, and this is a story that I’ll be sharing with my 10 year-old son, who I know will appreciate it (he did, by the way, but was quick to point out that he would have known to get water from the cactus–thank you PBS and Wild Kratts).