Code Talker by Chester Nez
Last weekend my family drove nine hours southwest from our summer location to visit the Grand Canyon. We began our drive by following a tributary of the Colorado River, and as we approached our destination, we caught glimpses of both the Colorado and the Little Colorado Rivers. Once in Grand Canyon Village, we watched the sun set and then rise over the canyon three times from our hotel room along the rim. A stunning landscape, and a somewhat terrifying place to bring young children, we challenged ourselves with hikes below the rim, with all of us completing the first mile and a half of the Bright Angel Trail and half of the family hiking the first mile and a half of the South Kaibab Trail.
We learned from our explorations of those as well as the Rim Trail that the Colorado River is only visible in certain locations. The tremendous force that created one of the world’s largest canyons proved to be fairly elusive. Trying to ignore our children’s pleas to see the canyon from a whitewater raft on our next visit (although I did that with my family just before entering high school), my husband and I pointed out the striations in the rock and the various animal life, like plenty of condors flying overhead, a group of mules taking riders down the path in front of us, and one lone bighorn sheep perched on a rock face. We also enjoyed seeing mule deer, elk, coyote, and plenty of very healthy looking squirrels.
After putting off our kids’ requests to buy souvenirs, we gave in on the last day, and that’s where we found evidence of an equally elusive yet steady presence within the National Park.
Chester Nez’s memoir, however, tells a greater story than that of defeating the Japanese. After reading about his family’s history and the atrocities they suffered as Americans expanded across the continent, including what the Navajo people call the Long Walk of 1864, the forced 350 miles from Fort Defiance, Arizona to Fort Sumner in New Mexico that killed hundreds of people, I read about his childhood on the Checkerboard Area of New Mexico, near Navajo Nation, how the teachers at his boarding schools tried to erase his Navajo culture and language, and how he witnessed firsthand another example of white man’s arrogance with the unexplained slaughtering of his tribe’s livestock between 1932 and 1934. Nez fills in the history for the reader and at each turn attempts to shed generous light on complicated issues of the day, ones where environmentalism may even have played a role in that last confusing and devastating act. He also includes the effects of this on the tribe:
“In the time before the massacre, friends and neighbors helped one another...The livestock reduction challenged this sense of community by pitting Navajo against Navajo...Neighbors put up fences...The year-round migration from one community grazing area to another that had been the norm as I grew up became impossible...The toll in self-respect was also huge. Families, unable to protect their own livestock, felt powerless. And nothing could have done more to erode the local work ethic. What was the point of working hard to build up wealth, a sizable herd, when the government just stepped in and destroyed it?”
“The massacre killed more than livestock. It changed the dynamic between neighbors; it changed the meaning of hard work; it changed everything. / After the Long Walk, the livestock massacre is considered the second great tragedy in Navajo history. A story now woven into oral tradition, the extermination is discussed wherever Navajos meet, so that like the Long Walk, it will never fade from memory.” (79-80)
Even against this backdrop, Chester Nez, born on January 23, 1921 and never granted a birth certificate, wanted to excel in the world he now found himself in, where it wasn’t possible to avoid white people any longer. He learned English, studied hard in school and didn’t flinch at the request to join the war effort when the Marines came to recruit boys at his high school, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
At a time when Native Americans were denied the right to vote, despite the Snyder Act of 1924 that admitted citizenship to Native Americans born in the U.S., and at a time when Chester Nez and his friends wouldn’t have been allowed to sit in a San Diego bar save for their Marine uniforms, his tribe made this declaration of allegiance in late spring 1940:
“Whereas, the Navajo Tribal Council and the 50,000 people we represent, cannot fail to recognize the crisis now facing the world in the threat of foreign invasion and the destruction of the great liberties and benefits which we enjoy on the reservation, and
“Whereas, there exists no purer concentration of Americanism than among the First Americans, and
“Whereas, it has become common practice to attempt national destruction through the sowing of seeds of treachery among minority groups such as ours, and
“Whereas, we hereby serve notice that any un-American movement among our people will be resented and dealt with severely, and
“Now, Therefore, we resolve that the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our Government and its institutions against all subversive and armed conflict and pledge our loyalty to the system which recognizes minority rights and a way of life that has placed us among the great people of our race.” (84-85)
Following this text Chester Nez writes, “It might surprise non-Navajos to read this declaration of allegiance. No Navajo, however, would be surprised. We have always felt a deep allegiance to our motherland, our Navajo Nation, and our families. To this allegiance is linked a sincere desire to protect all three.” (85)
Yes, I was completely shocked to read both the Council’s words and Mr. Nez’s words, especially his reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor:
“My roommate, Roy Begay, and I discussed the momentous events.
“‘What do you think this means?’ asked Roy.
“‘Our country has joined the war. I think the military will want us,’ I told him. ‘We are warriors.’
“We, like other Native Americans, had been born to the warrior tradition. Like other Navajos, we saw ourselves as inseparable from the earth we lived upon. And as protectors of what is sacred, we were both eager to defend our land.” (87)
Chester Nez and many other Navajo went on to do just that, and the least we can do to honor their service is to continue to tell their story. (And I have to point out that I was even more shocked to read the phrasing “we...stand ready as they did in 1918”, even before they had citizenship! Here’s an article about Choctaw soldiers in WWI.)
There was one moment though where Mr. Nez found himself in complete disbelief -- when he and the other Navajo code talkers were told their mission:
“The officer...told us we were to use our native language to devise an unbreakable code. I read expressions of shock on every face. A code based on the Navajo language? After we’d been so severely punished in boarding school for speaking it?” (102)
At first, the new recruits were intimidated by their task, and yet, by the end of that first day of work, “relief showed on every face. We slapped each other on the back, and joked to let off steam, feeling good about our work. The impossible-seeming task suddenly looked possible. We would not let our country or our fellow Marines down.” (106)
Chester Nez went on to fight and transmit coded messages at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu, and Angaur. He was sent home just before his division was sent to Iwo Jima.
In the military and in battle, Nez makes a point to say that his “skin color didn’t work against [him].” (172) However, he and another code talker were once mistaken for Japanese soldiers and held at gunpoint until a higher-up could confirm their identity. And once he returned to civilian life, he was sneered at inside a federal building in New Mexico where he went to obtain an identification card by a man who told Nez he wasn’t a “full citizen of the United States...You can’t even vote.” (217) Nez didn’t gain that right in New Mexico until 1948.
In 1968, the Navajo code was declassified, and the 400 Navajo code talkers began to receive public and congressional appreciation for their service. Chester Nez, along with all original 29 code talkers, received a gold medal in 2001 by President George W. Bush, with the rest of the code talkers receiving a silver medal. Chester Nez describes his legacy this way:
“My fellow code talkers and I have become part of a new oral and written tradition, a Navajo victory, with our culture contributing to our country’s defeat of a wily foe. The story of the code talkers has been told on the Checkerboard and the reservation and recorded in the pages of history books forever. Our story is not one of sorrow, like the Long Walk and the Great Livestock Massacre, but one of triumph.” (265-6)
That is true, and I’m glad Mr. Nez, who passed away in 2014, considered himself blessed. Still, just as the Colorado River wore away at the rock to form the Grand Canyon, white America wore away at the traditions and lives of Native American tribes. Mr. Nez admitted in his memoir that though his native language was important enough to win a world war, his own children weren’t fluent. And yet, as one of my friends said during a book club a few years ago, “We are still here.” They are still here, and with the declassification of the code talkers’ story, we can now read their full story in humility and awe.
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