June 18, 2009

Mythologizing the codetalkers

Researchers:  Preserve code talker legacy

By Cindy YurthThe recent deaths of three Navajo code talkers were a tragic loss for the Navajo Nation.

But they should also serve as a wake-up call to preserve their legacy, said two people who have been chronicling the code talkers' lives for decades.

"It's making me kick myself in the butt to get my history degree and start one of the books I've been thinking about," said Zonnie Gorman, daughter of the late code talker Carl Nelson Gorman and perhaps the leading expert on the history of the code talkers.

"I'd really like to see a code talker museum while some of them are still with us," said Kenji Kawano, who has photographed and interviewed about 100 of the estimated 400 men who were recruited to communicate messages in a Navajo-language code during World War II.
And:The code talker story itself is taking on a legendary quality, Gorman said, and the lines between fact and fiction are becoming blurred--even by the code talkers themselves.

"For instance, I was traveling with a code talker to give a lecture, and he started telling the people about the symbolism of their outfit," she recalled. "He was saying the black shoes were like obsidian arrowheads, the khaki pants were the color of the earth, all the way on up to his hat.

"Well, I happened to be at the association meeting where they decided on a uniform, and I don't remember hearing any talk about symbolism. It was more like, 'Black shoes and khaki pants look military, and then we should have a bright-colored shirt to stand out.'

"But I think that's common in Native cultures. We incorporate our heroes into the fabric of our culture until they become these legendary figures, and everything about them takes on a symbolic, almost spiritual quality."
And:Ironically, the former Navajo Nation Museum curator who helped the code talkers start their association isn't sure he likes the idea of a museum specifically dedicated to the code talkers. Martin Link thinks the code talker legacy is already a bit overblown.

"In the first place, singling people out for glory is not the Navajo way," Link said. "Even Manuelito is buried in an unmarked grave ...

"Secondly, there seems to be this common misperception that the code talkers single-handedly won the war. You don't think two atomic bombs had something to do with it?

"And thirdly, I think it does a disservice to the thousands of other Navajo veterans. What about the 1,200 Navajo Marines who served in World War II and weren't code talkers? What about the Navajos who served in the Coast Guard? There were Navajo women in the WAC and the WAFT who you never hear anything about.
Comment:  I agree with the curator about the mythologizing of the codetalkers. They did a great job, but did they really win the war in the Pacific theater?

I'd love to see historians rank the top 10 or 100 military feats in World War II. I wonder where or even whether the codetalkers would place on this list.

For more on the subject, see:

Congressional medal for codetalkers
Red-Horse's codetalker film
Lakota codetalker sports complex
Codetalker monument takes shape
Codetalkers get a holiday


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