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Code Talkers author recognized in live performance, opera

March 01, 2013

Laura Tohe, professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University, is taking her work from the classroom to the stage for a special reading by the popular Native American group “CEDARS.”

Based in New York, “CEDARS” is a an all Native American group that holds staged performances of works by Native American writers. The pieces are both impactful and enlightening as they speak to the struggles faced by indigenous peoples.

In February the group performed a poem from one of Tohe’s books, titled “No Parole Today.” The piece was based off stories that Tohe’s grandmother would share about her experiences at the Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas.

“I feel very honored that my work was included in this reading," Tohe says. "At the time when I recorded my grandmother’s story, I didn’t know exactly how I would use it. 'No Parole Today' was the perfect opportunity to include this powerful story.”

Tohe is best known for her groundbreaking book on the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, who used the Navajo language to pass military messages over the radio. Little is known about this population, as they were sworn to secrecy about their militaries duties. It wasn’t until 1968 that the United States government declassified the language after deeming that it was safe to release the Navajo language as a method for information transport.

Tohe says that during her interviews with descendants of code talkers, most stated that for many years they were unaware their loved ones had held this position. Surviving talkers shared their experiences growing up on a reservation and on the battlefield. Tohe says that her work on the project held a special place in her heart, as her own father was part of this elite group.

Next year Tohe will have the honor of turning another poem, "Enemy Slayer," into an opera for the Houston Opera. The idea grew out of a libretto based on the same poem that she and musical collaborator Mark Grey wrote for the Phoenix Symphony a few years ago. The libretto was the first ever Navajo-themed oratorio.

“It’s really thrilling to have your words performed in front of an audience by world-class singers. As someone who came from the reservation with limited access to things like opera and what the university gives me now, it is very special to be a part of this,” said Tohe.

The ASU professor also plans to create homemade paper that she will use to write her poems on and turn into a book. Tohe’s mother, grandmother and aunt are all weavers who used natural, plant-based dyes to make color wool. She plans to experiment with this process and use plants to make the base for the paper.

“I’ve taken one class on paper making and have done some research online. It will be interesting but cool to have a completely handmade book of poetry,” she said.

Attend a free book club reading of "Code Talker Stories" at noon, March 27, in Old Main.

The Department of English is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.