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Navajo Code Talkers and other Native American heroes

More than a half-century after they helped win World War II, the United States has paid a proper tribute to the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers who invented a code in their language that the Japanese could not break.

The 29 were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress confers on civilians. It seemed that official Washington was trying to make up for the six decades of lag-time between the Code Talkers' essential service and the U.S. recognition of it. The tone was respectful and dignified, uncommon in the era of photo-op diplomacy.

The July 26 ceremony was convened in the Capitol Rotunda by Speaker of the House Dennis J. Hastert, R-Ill. The medals were presented by President George W. Bush in the presence of Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye and Speaker Edward Begay, and other dignitaries.

"Gentlemen," said Bush, "your service inspires the respect and admiration of all Americans and our gratitude is expressed for all time in the medals it is now my honor to present."

The honor came too late for most of the original Code Talkers. Thirteen were killed in action and 11 died since the war. Only five lived to experience the top-level appreciation. Code Talkers John Brown Jr., Allen Dale June, Chester Nez and Lloyd Oliver received their medals in person, while the fifth, Joe Palmer, was too ill to travel. Family members received medals for Palmer and for their deceased relatives.

Brown spoke for his fellow Code Talkers at the ceremony and expressed their love for their Navajo Din? language, calling it "precious and sacred" and "bestowed upon us, we the Din? Nation, by the Holy People."

The president called theirs "a story that all Americans can celebrate and every American should know." He noted that the "first people" were portrayed in the paintings in the Rotunda "in the background, as if extras in the story. Yet, their own presence here in America predates all human record. Before others arrived, the story was theirs alone.

"Above all it is a story of young Navajos who brought honor to their nation and victory to their country. The Code Talkers joined 44,000 Native Americans who wore the uniform in World War II. More than 12,000 Native Americans fought in World War I. Thousands more served in Korea and Viet Nam, and serve to this very day.

"Military commanders have credited Code Talkers with (successes) in the battles of Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Okinawa," said Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. It was his legislation last year that authorized the gold medals for the original 29 Code Talkers and silver medals for some 400 who followed.

The 29 Navajos developed the code under wartime pressure. Then they and hundreds of other Navajo radio operators transmitted military messages that could not be deciphered. The Navy & Marine Corps WWII Commemorative Committee found that they "took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945."

One of the original Navajo Code Talkers was the artist Carl N. Gorman, who lived until 1998. A dozen years ago in Navajoland, he explained to me that no outsider could ever break their code because they used their language in ways known only to their small circle, kept the code in their heads and maintained the code of silence.

Gorman recalled being stuck for a word for Italy. One of his comrades came up with the answer, saying, "I met an Italian one time and he looked this way." He said they took a phrase in their language describing a single aspect of one man's recollection of another, condensed it and made that the code word for Italy.

"At the end of the war, these unsung heroes returned to their homes on buses, no parades, no fanfare, no special recognition for what they had truly accomplished," Bingaman said. Only after the code was declassified in 1968, "did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans begin to emerge."

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The Navajo Code Talkers were not unheralded in the past. They received Certificates of Appreciation from President Richard M. Nixon in 1971. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed August 14, 1982, as National Navajo Code Talker Day and they were recognized in a 1992 ceremony at the Pentagon.

"Think of this," Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., said in his Senate floor statement, "just 77 years before (WWII), the grandfathers of these heroes were forced at gunpoint with 9,000 other Navajos from their homeland and marched 300 miles through the burning desert. For four long years the Navajo people were interned at the Bosque Redondo.

"For these men and their comrades to rise above that injustice in American history and put their lives on the line speaks of their character and their patriotism," said Campbell, who is Cheyenne.

Bush quoted one of the Code Talkers as having said, "The code word for America was 'Our Mother.' 'Our Mother' stood for freedom, our religion, our ways of life, and that's why we went in."

The only misstep in the hour-long ceremony was an odd moment of failed staff work reminiscent of President Bill Clinton's erroneous claim that his 1994 meeting with American Indian leaders was a first for any White House or U.S. president.

"Twenty-four Native Americans have earned the highest military distinction of all, including Ernest Childers, who was my guest at the White House last week," Bush said.

Childers was the first Native American awarded the Medal of Honor, for heroic action in 1943 in Oliveto, Italy, with Company C of the 45th Infantry Division Thunderbirds. It certainly was appropriate for Bush to mention Childers, but he has not been the president's guest.

I called Col. Childers ? through my father, who was his schoolmate at Chilocco Indian School and a fellow Company C combat veteran ? to ask how it was to be a guest in the Bush White House. He's met with nearly all the presidents since the war and was happy for the invitation from this one, he said, but poor health kept him from traveling outside Oklahoma. He was glad that Bush gave out the medals.

"It's about time the Navajos were honored for their great achievement in strategy," said Childers, who is Bird Clan Muscogee and president of the Mvskoke Red Stick Society for combat veterans. He recalled how the "Company C men communicated on the walkie-talkies or out on patrol in Muscogee or Cherokee or our other languages and used our different signals and noises ? horse laughs, roosters crowing ? for Be Aware or I'm Coming or I'm Over Here."

Native warriors have used their languages to help the United States win wars from the Revolutionary War onward. The first who were known as a code-talking unit were the Choctaw Code Talkers in World War I. Scholars have identified a score of other code-talking groups in wars of the 1900s, including Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Comanche, Dakota, Hopi, Kiowa, Lakota, Menominee, Muscogee, Oneida, Osage, Pawnee, Sac & Fox, Seminole and Yankton Sioux.

Nearly all the American Indian Code Talkers were forbidden to speak their Native languages when they were students in federal boarding schools. One who was beaten for speaking his Comanche language was Charles Chibitty, the last survivor of the 17-member Comanche Code Talkers unit of the 4th Signal Company.

The Comanche Code Talkers were recognized in 1999 with the Knowlton Award for distinction in Army intelligence. Chibitty received the honor in a ceremony in the Pentagon, where he kept repeating a question, "Why did they wait so long to recognize us?"

The Code Talkers, at least the Navajo ones, will be recognized by Hollywood next, in an MGM movie, "Windtalkers," set to open on Nov. 9, during Native American Heritage Month and just before Veterans Day.

Editor's note: Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.