Code Talkers overcame racism to help US

January 23, 2019

One of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers, Native Americans who relayed messages that were never decoded by enemies in World War II, died last week at the age of 94.

Alfred Newman died at a New Mexico nursing home.

One of his sons, Kevin Newman, told National Public Radio that his father was a quiet yet courageous man.

“My dad told me that the U.S. was in trouble and when they were calling for him, he needed to answer that call with the armed forces,” he says.

There is irony in the life of this man. As a boy, Newman attended a boarding school that, like many schools at the time, forbade native American students from speaking in their native tongue, Dine.

He learned English, but he kept his native language in his heart. And when World War II broke out and the Japanese decoded all the secret languages Americans could think of, someone came up with the idea of letting about 400 Navajos speak to each other in the language they were forbidden to use in “Indian schools.”

The enemy was flummoxed by the language and they were never able to decode it.

In an interview, Newman said that because there was no word in the Dine language for tanks, he would message fellow code talkers about turtles, “cheh-tala-hes.” The word for bomb was potato.

Thus when a bomb destroyed a tank, a potato destroyed a turtle in Navaho code talk.

In 2001, President George W. Bush honored 21 Code Talkers for giving “their country a service only they could give.” He called their work “a story of ancient people, called to serve in a modern war.”

Today it is believed there are fewer than 10 Code Talkers left alive.

A country run primarily by white English folks can be cruel. When I was in southwest Louisiana in the mid 1970s to learn about the Cajun culture, I spoke to many older Cajuns who told me that, in their formative years, they were required to go to “English schools” during a time a state law prohibited them from speaking their native Cajun French language on school grounds.

I remember speaking to an elderly Cajun who said he remembered his first day at school.

“I turned to talk to my Cajun friend in Cajun and the teacher slapped my knuckles and told me to speak English. At recess, we’d run across the road off school property so we could speak to each other in our language.” he said.

By the time I was doing my research, they were teaching Cajun in high schools.

I asked one young man why he wanted to learn Cajun.

“I want to be able to speak to my grandma,” he replied. She never learned to speak English, he added.

Also by that time, many Cajuns, particularly rice farmers, were rich and were demanding the banks where they did business have clerks who spoke Cajun French.

Young French speakers were at a premium.

White English politicians thought they had the answers to everything, just as many of them do today.

They were proudly racist in the old days. Today they are not as proud or as racist. And if they are, they are often short timers.

Or at least they should be.

Dave Peyton is on Facebook. His email address is davepeyton@comcast.net.