Chester Nez, Indian Patriot

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. 
# # #

A bit of Christmas every day

Unpacking and cataloging books at the Josephy Library is a little bit like Christmas every day. I dig through boxes, looking for the most essential things to catalog (there are many boxes left to catalog, so someone has to prioritize!), schlep them to volunteer librarian Shannon Maslach at the bank, and she brings them back with neat little cards in them, or in nice folders that go in the new oak map case/file cabinet built for us by local cabinet maker Brian Oliver. 
James Michener WW II
This week it was a faded, torn covered copy of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Out of old library and bookstore days, I turned immediately to the copyright page, and sure enough it’s “New York. Macmillan, First Printing, 1947.” The book is in booksellers’ “fair” condition, I would say, but the on-line story is that a dust jacket in any shape at all is rare.
So the little treasure, with Alvin’s familiar signature on the first end-page, is probably worth hundreds of dollars. But my mind runs to the story from A Walk Toward Oregon about his working on a novel as WW II ends, then abandoning it and writing The Long and the Short and the Tall, the non-fiction book about his experiences in the Pacific. There is an inkling of why the fiction book was left half-done in Walk Toward Oregon—personal life had been disrupted by the War and his homecoming, but still, I never really talked with Alvin about it, or about Michener and Michener’s take on the War and the Pacific. More questions not asked.
Which reminds me that Alvin and Betty’s daughter Kathy (Katch) Josephy brought in a CD copy of Alvin’s recording of the landing on Guam. This was the landing that he recorded on a condom covered mike, tethered to his half-track by a 40 foot wire. Over 20 of the 32 men that waded ashore were hit before they got there. The recording played across the nation, and is acknowledged today as the only recording of a ship to shore landing by a participant. Alvin played parts of it for us at Fishtrap one time, and it was even then, over 50 years after the event, a deeply emotional experience for him. “Some of us felt guilty about coming home alive,” he said. 
Shannon cataloged it—and made a loaner copy. The text is also reproduced in The Long and the Short and the Tall.
There were other treasures as well this week, including two contemporary accounts of the Nez Perce War by correspondents sympathetic to the Indians. One of them, a signature from Galaxy Magazine, 1877, by one “F.L.M.,” has a note from P.D. on the inside of the front cover. The P.D. is, I’m sure, the antiquarian book dealer and expert on Western Americana, Peter Decker, who will get his own blog post sometime soon. People like Decker still exist—William Reese, who got his start with Decker’s help, is apparently now the dean of dealers in Western historical material. But in the days before Google, these antiquarians found the missing links—the old books, manuscripts, magazines, and letters—that historians like Alvin relied on in telling the stories.
There is something importantly tactile about end-covers with initials and signatures on them, about the books and important papers and journals and old newspapers, letters, and magazines we own, something that Google can’t quite capture.
# # #