The field of bright yellow flowers (weeds, really) spread behind the curving line of Old Glories set every twenty feet apart next to the long approach to the capitol of the Navajo Nation. Yellow signs with names hand-stenciled in red and attached to the flagpoles with wire proclaimed the names of those who had passed away. Each year the line of flags will grow longer and the seats on the parade floats will grow fewer.
Despite the movies and books about the Code Talkers, most people don’t realize the enormity of their sacrifice.
While every school child has a passing knowledge of what the Cherokee Indians and the other civilized tribes suffered during the Trail of Tears in 1838 when the government put together special forces to gather thousands of Native Americans and force them to relocate to Oklahoma, many people don’t realize that the Navajo Tribe suffered a similar fate in 1864.
The Long Walk, the final act in a brutal round-up of Navajo, resulted over 200 lives lost as the U.S. Army forced survivors to march 300 miles from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. About 9000 Navajo survived the march—where they joined 400 Mescalero Apaches (traditional enemies) on a small reservation with little water or food. For four years they suffered internment before they were allowed to return home. As non-citizens, they had little recourse against the whims of land-grabbing settlers.
Sixty years later, Congress granted U.S. Citizenship to all Native Americans—but each state could decide whether or not Native Americans had the right to vote. The state of Arizona chose to deny Natives the opportunity to participate fully as citizens, citing a state law that prevented those under the guardianship of the government from voting in elections (since the Navajo and other Natives lived on reservations, the state claimed they were under guardianship of the government and thus not fit to vote).
And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As the war in the Pacific dragged on, the United States found themselves in an untenable situation—the Japanese had cracked their military code. The military responded by increasing the complexity of their code—to the point that it took over two hours to send and decode a single message. Without rapid communication, many soldiers lost their lives.
Phillip Johnson, a WWI veteran and the son of missionaries to the Navajo who grew up speaking the language, suggested that the government use Navajo as a basis for a new, unbreakable code. When Johnson demonstrated that a Navajo could encode, transmit and decode a message in 20 seconds, the Marine Corps knew they had found the solution to their problem.
The Marine Corps called on young Navajo men to leave the reservation and join the Marine Corps Radio Operators. Twenty-nine men answered the call and formed the Navajo Code Talkers and developed the code that would play a key role in turning the tide of the war in the Pacific. Other Navajo joined them Without their bravery, dedication and sacrifice, the United States would not have taken Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Saipan or Okinawa.
These venerable men—the Navajo Code Talkers—answered a call to save not just their nation, but the nation that forced their grandparents on a long walk in the dead of winter and imprisoned them for four years before allowing them to return to their homeland.
These venerable men answered a call to not just help their nation, but to help the country that suppressed them—that classified them as second-class citizens and stole their children and burned their livestock (the government didn’t want the Navajo to become an economic power in the region and would round up the Navajo cattle and sheep and kill them in order to maintain ‘equilibrium’ in the region).
These venerable men answered a call to use the very essence of their being—their mother tongue—to save lives of the white men who had mocked them and denigrated them for their cultural differences.
They fought for a country that couldn’t see past their culture. They fought for a country that tried to strip them of their language and their heritage. They fought for a country that failed to uphold their right to vote (it took Arizona until 1976 to allow non-English speaking Natives the right to vote) and denied them federal benefits that they paid for in their taxes.
May their lives inspire us to question our long-held beliefs about other people. May their lives inspire us to honor the men and women who have sacrificed their comfort, safety and future so that we might have comfort, safety and a future. The greatness of a nation is measured by the greatness of the individuals who sacrifice for each other. Click To Tweet
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