The president’s uncoded message to Native Americans

December 2, 2017 GMT

The White House ceremony last week honoring World War II veteran Navajo code talkers should have been a little more dignified.

That’s a tall order these days, but this should have been a cinch. Be respectful, be genuine and sincere. Above all, be nice. At the very least, it would have been a nice way to round out Native American Heritage Month.

The three veterans who were present at the special event — all in their 90s — and the other American Indians who were instrumental in creating a code that won battles and saved lives should have been the only ones in the spotlight.

It would have been a good opportunity to mention that warriors hold a special role in American Indian history; about how becoming a protector of your people, your land and your way of life against enemy threats was something American Indians understood and deeply respected. It was a chance to point out that — even with the harsh history that nearly erased the people whose horse warrior culture kept the Southwest from being settled for decades — many of the men raised with this cultural narrative took pride in serving their — our — country.


Modern Americans should have been learning about how World War II Americans were able to get messages past the Germans because the information was transmitted by Cherokee and Choctaw tribal languages. We should have been focused on how that created a special role for American Indians in World War II, prompting recruiters to seek out volunteers to join the war effort.

Those who have never heard about the code talkers might have been interested to hear about how in the early days of the war, when sailors were warned that loose lips sink ships, every code that was being used in the Pacific Theatre was being broken by the enemy. That’s why, they might have learned, the Marine Corps recruited young Navajos to develop a top-secret military code that was first used in August 1942 in Guadalcanal and opened the door for a top secret code school that taught hundreds of American Indians to send and receive code in battle from memory only.

Peter MacDonald, one of the 13 surviving Navajo code talkers, touched on that during the ceremony. He thanked the White House for the salute and explained that the 13 remaining code talkers have one mission left: to build a National Navajo Code Museum. This is a valuable story to tell, he explained, because in a country as diverse as America, it is important to understand that when we work together, we are invincible. Future generations, he said, need to go to such a place to learn why America is so strong.


As the president of the United States offered a rambling thank you to the veterans for their considerable role in World War II, noting that they were a very, very special people who were here long before any of us were here, he added a quip about how there is a representative in Congress who, “they say,” was here a long time ago.

They call her Pocahontas.

That’s how you take the gleam off a proud, shining moment.

It’s how you cheapen an honor being bestowed to veterans and the memory of those who changed the course of a war. That’s how you steal the spotlight from a group of 90-something national heroes who might not get another chance to visit the White House for the sake of a one-liner aimed at a political adversary who wasn’t even in the room.

And everyone who takes offense when athletes take a knee during the national anthem should be fuming.