The last of the original 29 World War II Navajo code-talkers, Chester Nez, passed just weeks ago at the age of 93. The cruel ironies in his story are many, but the greatest of them haunted Nez to the end: “All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo, and then to turn around and ask us to help with the same language,” he told USA Today in 2003, “It still kind of bothers me.”
I’ve known for years that the enlistment rates for American Indians in the armed forces are higher than for any other definable group, and that the standard interpretation is that “warrior culture” still flourishes in the tribes. Maybe true—though it seems we’ve made a bad habit of lumping all Indians together without considering historical realities of some tribes being more war-like and some tribes being known for peace-making skills. And we haven’t taken into account gender roles in tribal cultures—another area of great diversity—that might also influence warrior behavior and enlistment rates.
This thinking brought me back to Alvin Josephy’s first “Indian book,” Patriot Chiefs, published in 1961. In the Foreword, Josephy says that “from the first coming of the Europeans to America, the Indians were faced with the gravest threats that men face: challenges to freedom, right of conscience… and life itself.”
“There were some cowards,” he continues, “some weaklings, some bargainers, some appeasers and compromisers; some were confused and frightened, some confused and very brave, and many were strong and unwavering patriots.”
When traveling with Alvin on his last book tour in 2001 (A Walk Towards Oregon), he always looked to see where his books were shelved. In the early days, he said, “they were hidden with books on insects and dinosaurs.” Indians, in other words, were not a part of history and didn’t have biographies. Indians knew different, and in 1961 they told Josephy that no one had ever called them “patriots,” no one had recognized that they were always fighting and struggling for their land and their ways of life.
Chester Nez again: “when joining the Marine Corps, I thought about how my people were mistreated, but then I thought this would be my chance to do something for my country.” So Chester (his Indian name is lost; Chester given him by whites after President Arthur) and 28 other young Navajos, at the instigation of a WW I vet and son of missionaries on the Navajo reservation named Philip Johnson, used their once forbidden language to build a code that the Japanese never cracked. (Navajo was the basis, but the code was sophisticated enough so that regular Navajo speakers could not understand it.) By War’s end some additional 400 Navajos had joined the original 29, and, Indians from other tribes had used their languages as codes in the European Theater as Chester and tribe toiled in the Pacific.
I discovered the business about other tribes and codes in Chester Nez’s NYT obituary—another case of Indians lost in our history—and heard again how at War’s end they came home unwanted and mistreated in their own lands.
Late for sure, but the Navajo code-talkers have entered American history now in books and film: the New York Times headline on Chester Nez announced that a “Native Tongue Helped to Win the Pacific War.”
I wished that Alvin had lived to see that headline. “Some of the Indians’ greatest patriots,” he said in 1961, “died unsung by white men, and because their peoples also were obliterated, or almost so, their very names are forgotten” Alvin’s Patriot Chiefs—Hiawatha, King Philip, Pope, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Osceola, Black Hawk and Keokuk, Crazy Horse, and Joseph—“were big men, as much a part of our heritage as any of our other heroes, and they belong to all Americans now, not just to Indians.”
And Chester Nez was a big man—and a patriot. He didn’t die forgotten, but embraced by Indian and white alike. He helped to win a war, and maybe to make it possible for his heirs to speak their own language again.
Patriotism might be the real key to understanding the Indians’ high enlistment rates and their readiness to die for land and culture. In ways that white immigrants may never understand, this is Indian country still, and Indians are patriots still. And maybe, ever so slowly, they are entering “American history” as well. Alvin would like that.
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