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Last of the Navajo ‘Code Talkers’ passed away – one of the Greatest Generation

Navajo Code Talkers - Saipan, June 1944
Navajo Code Talkers - Saipan, June 1944
Public Domain

A recent report by the Associated Press indicated that the last one of the original Navajo ‘Code Talkers,’ Chester Nez, passed away just before the anniversary of D-Day. Nez was one of the original 29 Navajo Indians known as code talkers who developed the unbreakable code that the United States employed successfully against the Japanese military during WWII. Hundreds of other Navajo men also joined such an effort later in the war. Their story has been well documented, and even a popular movie recently dramatized the experiences of the particular dangers these men faced while in the midst of combat. Unfortunately, when most Americans think of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ they would not normally imagine American Indians as part of that bunch, but these brave men belong in such honored company.

Chester Nez once explained that when he enlisted into the 382nd Platoon of the U.S. Marines, he lied about his age in order to join and serve. He enlisted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he had been recruited from a reservation school. Nez served the nation in a devastating war, returned home, then received the Congressional Gold Medal (the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress) from President George W. Bush during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in 2001, and then he died at the ripe old age of 93 on June 4, 2014. He like many others of different races fought in the U.S. military so that the nation could endure, so that freedom could endure. Now, while D-Day now is but a memory and commemorated each year, the memories of heroic efforts of WWII should not be forgotten.

Essentially, it would seem to contain deeper significance for those who were willing to go off to war and serve the nation which was their people’s former enemy. One of the more impressive memories to be conjured up would be of the Navajo, or other American Indians, who fought for this nation in both world wars. Ironically, at one time the Navajo were the enemy of the U.S. military. They were forcibly dislocated from their homelands through a combination of force from U.S. Cavalry and neighboring enemy Ute tribes. The Navajo fought back like many other tribes before them in U.S. history. Finally, at the time of the American Civil War, they were forcibly removed from their land when the New Mexico volunteers, led by Colonel Kit Carson, drove the Navajo onto the ‘Long Walk’ and into forced captivity.

The Long Walk is comparable in U.S. history to the more well-known ‘Trail of Tears,’ which primarily refers to the time of the forced relocation of the Cherokee and other American Indians of the Southeast. Prior to the time of the Long Walk, the Navajo fought back to keep their homelands like many other tribes before them in U.S. history, but they too were defeated like many other tribes before them. Once defeated, between 8,000 – 9,000 (reports vary) of the Navajo peoples were forced to march approximately 300 – 450 miles across the desert, the mountains, and the Rio Grande River to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. This was the start of the forced internment in the Bosque Redondo (or Hweeldi by the Navajo) Redondo located in the Pecos River Valley..

This dark period was noted most for the “Long Walk,” but it was actually about 50 different treks by various groups herded along by the U.S. Army. Only after several years of suffering, were the Navajo allowed to return to their homelands. As they returned, it is said that as they formed onto one road, the mass of people stretched for 10 miles along the trail. But when returned, the people were limited to the confines of a reservation within the Four Corners area.

For the Navajo, their love for the land and the view that it is sacred is central to their continued existence. The Navajo and their ancestors may have lived in this region of North America for close to 5,000 or 6,000 years. They had survived the dry sun-parched climate; they had survived despite being threatened by Indian enemies; they had survived the Spanish Conquistadors as they pushed up from Central America, and had survived despite being threatened by the Americans during westward expansion. However by all measures, their survival had been most seriously threatened by the U.S. Cavalry. Today, the hard core Navajo would never again want to be separated from their beloved land, and it is their religious ways and customs that bind them to their sacred homeland.

“All of our sacred songs and prayers are here within our four sacred mountains. The teachings of our ancestors are here in our songs and prayers. These songs and prayers are part of the ceremonies; they are our teaching and our way of life. This is our religion. This is what connects us to the land… Our Creator placed us here on this land; we are part of Mother Earth's heart…”
Mae Tso, Navajo elder

The ordeal related to the Long Walk is somewhat similar to what the Hebrew peoples’ experience when they were forcibly relocated to a foreign land by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon from 597 BCE to around 520 BCE. During this nearly 80 year period of forced relocation, the Jewish people also longed for their homeland. Many of their own religious leaders felt it was God’s punishment for their disunity and their transgressions against the Almighty. During that time, many Jewish people became more pious and it is believed that the Torah was re-written into its more present form during this period of the Babylonian Captivity. Such suffering inevitably shaped the deeper beliefs of both of these spiritual peoples and helped to transform the common practices of each of the peoples.

One traditional belief of the Navajo similar to Jewish faith is that there are serious consequences for transgression against God, and that illness or misfortune is a consequence of transgressions against the higher powers or deities. To counter such misfortunes, the practice of medicine developed over time and that involved varieties of ceremonial practice. It can be understood from the viewpoint that healing involves treating an illness by dealing with the cause being an individual’s transgressions, or some sort of accident, or the result of witchcraft. The ancient ones originated important ceremonies dealing with warfare, hunting, and with farming later on in their history. However, after the Long Walk, and since the time of reservations, most major public ceremonies have focused on healing in a much broader sense with the concern to maintain harmony with the supernatural powers or the deities.

For those of the old religion, the deeper purpose of Navajo life is to maintain harmony between the Holy People (supernatural ones) and the Earth Surface People (human beings). The Navajo believe that the Holy People created the original human ancestors, and had provided the Earth Surface People with the necessary practical knowledge to survive and the ceremonial knowledge to continue to live on the land. Navajo religion can be understood as 'life itself, the land, and well-being.' All living things - people, plants, animals, mountains, and the Earth itself - are relatives. Each entity is infused with its own spirit, or 'inner form', enabling each part of creation with life and purpose in an orderly and interconnected universe.

The spiritually oriented Navajo recognize the interrelatedness of all creation through their daily prayer offerings and a quite elaborate ritual and ceremony system. The sincere practice of their ceremonies and rituals create the harmony that ensures this. The Navajo believe that the deities can be helpful or harmful to humans or “the Earth Surface People” depending on their whim or how people relate to the deities. So, the basic purpose of Navajo life in this regard is to maintain a balance between individuals and the universe and to live in harmony with the Creator and the rest of creation (nature). In order to achieve this sacred responsibility, Navajos must perform their religious practices on the specific, time honored areas which they inhabit.

The Navajo are still a strong and proud people even though they have assimilated into the dominant culture and society. They are one of the most numerous of the American Indian tribes. If the Navajo had descended from restless, nomadic peoples, the primary characteristic that shows up in their history in the Four Corners area was their love of the land and the creatures around them – all living things. They were the original owners of the uninhabited lands of the southwest, yet had to suffer incredibly to hold onto it, and their stewardship would be undeniable. Despite all of their hardships, their culture still could move beyond their defeat and forced relocation. They could rise to fight again for their adopted country. It says much about their depth of character. They are an amazingly resilient and spiritual people!