Visual Arts

Heard Museum Explores the Legacy of Code Talkers

Every year on the weekend before Thanksgiving, my hometown of Winslow hosts a Christmas parade featuring traditions of northern Arizona cultures. With tribal princesses from Navajo chapter houses, local civic organizations, Hopi hoop dancers, and pieces of hard candy thrown to kids who watch from the curb, there has always been plenty to attract the more than 10,000 who attend each year.

Even among so much to look at, the Navajo Code Talkers, who for many consecutive years marched in this parade, stood out. The crowd would get a little bit louder, swelling with applause and pride, as the men dressed in bright yellow shirts moved along the parade route.

Each year, though, fewer and fewer of these Navajo men, who served during World War II, are marching in parades like this one. Simply put, they are dying off.

Using a code they created from their native language, these men became a weapon against the Japanese. And though they men are fading into history, the story of the Code Talkers is becoming American legend. It is a story of perseverance and creativity, and how diversity led to ingenuity. The importance of this legacy is explored in dual exhibitions — "Native Words, Native Warriors" and "Navajo Code Talkers: Photographs by Kenji Kawano" — at the Heard Museum.

The Code Talkers' story includes obstacles, tenacity, patience, and imagination, and the exhibition succeeds in addressing philosophical questions about cultural pluralism and diversity.

The first part of this exhibition, "Native Words, Native Warriors," is a traveling show from the Smithsonian Institution comprising 15 banners full of narrative, dates, and historical material, as well as an 11-minute video. The panels fill in the gaps of a story that many of us are familiar with but may not know completely: how Native peoples and their languages played a role in both WWI and WWII. How 420 Navajo Code Talkers, all members of the U.S. Marine Corps, created a code based on their native language, taking a word like "tank," for instance, and calling it chay-da-gahi ("tortoise"). The show explores how many of the Code Talkers learned English in government-sponsored schools whose mission was to rid them of the native language that later saved American lives.

The Heard Museum has enhanced the experience by adding several elements. Assistant curator Marcus Monenerkit traveled to Oklahoma and northern Arizona to acquire some of the items on display, including some from Richard Mike, known for having a Code Talker Museum inside a Burger King he owns in Kayenta, Arizona.

You can see backpack radios such as the BC-1000, the EE-8 Field Phone, and the Handie-Talkie Radio used by the Code Talkers. They operated wire and radio equipment, speaking coded messages into a hand-held radio or phone. Messages were transmitted and received almost verbatim. In the field, the Code Talkers didn't write down any of the code, instead relying on memorization. Over the course of the war, an original 211-word vocabulary nearly tripled. It was a code whose success could be attributed to the men's resilience in using their language despite years of repression in boarding schools. It went unbroken by the Japanese during World War II.

The U.S. government didn't declassify the contributions of the Code Talkers, or the code itself, until 1968.

It wasn't long after this time that photographer Kenji Kawano began photographing the Navajo. Some of these photographs can be seen in the companion exhibition, "Navajo Code Talkers: Photographs by Kenji Kawano."

Kawano, a Japanese-born photographer, first came to the United States in 1973 at age 24 wanting to become the next Robert Frank or Henri Cartier-Bresson, but he couldn't find a subject he liked to photograph. Then an antiques dealer on Hollywood Boulevard told him about the Navajo, the largest Native American tribe in the United States. Kawano was surprised. He had never heard of the Navajo, though he grew up watching Westerns in Japan, so he took a Greyhound bus to Gallup, New Mexico, in March 1974 and, before long, was working at a gas station in Ganado. He often hitchhiked to get around in those days, which is how he met Carl Gorman, one of the original Navajo Code Talkers.

Gorman introduced Kawano to many more Code Talkers, who surprised him by speaking the Japanese they had picked up in the service. He was impressed with their language recall. They had come back to the States in 1945, and here it was 1975, 30 years later and they still remembered.

The 30 photographs in the exhibition span more than 30 years, from 1975 to 2012. All are gelatin silver prints. They show a progression from the Code Talkers as hearty middle-aged men to senior citizens. A progression from walking upright to golf carts and canes. The men are decorated in a combination of military medals and traditional Navajo bracelets and beaded necklaces.

Kawano lives in Window Rock with his wife. He says it has changed greatly from his first days there, when people wore cowboy hats and boots. Now, he says, the young people are in baseball caps and tennis shoes. When he says, "Ya'at'eeh" to them, they mostly answer back "hi" in English.

It's hard to get an exact figure of how many Navajo Code Talkers are still alive; estimates range from 30 to 70. But their numbers are quickly dwindling. Just a few weeks ago, the Navajo Nation lost 90-year-old Code Talker George Smith.

One of Kawano's photos shows eight Code Talkers sitting together on an ordinary bench, with Monument Valley's majesty behind them. It's no parade, but it's definitely worth a trip to the Heard just to see this image.

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Sativa Peterson
Contact: Sativa Peterson