November 12, 2012

Japanese photographer specializes in codetalkers

The Lensman Who Devoted His Career to Photographing the Code Talkers Is Still Capturing History on Navajo Land

By Alysa LandryKawano arrived on the reservation six years after the Navajo-based wartime code was declassified in 1968, which led to the long-overdue recognition and celebration of a group of more than 400 Navajo heroes. “We were not very much aware of the real significance of the Navajo language as a code,” recalls Peter MacDonald, 84, a Code Talker and president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. “We didn’t know until much later the significance until it was declassified in 1968.

“The Japanese were a very smart, intelligent enemy,” says MacDonald, who later became the chairman of the Navajo tribe. “They were breaking every code out there except Navajo. It was the only code that was never broken… but we learned this only after it was declassified much later.”

Kawano worked as photographer for the tribe and took photos for the Navajo Times before he discovered the subject that would change his life. His introduction to the Code Talkers came as he was hitchhiking from Ganado, Arizona, to the Navajo Nation’s capital in Window Rock, Arizona, and Carl Gorman, one of the original 29 Code Talkers, offered him a ride.

“At that time, no one was taking photos of the Code Talkers,” Kawano says. “I started photographing them in 1987 for a book. In 1993, I had an exhibit in Tokyo, and people wanted to know more about the Code Talkers. I followed the Code Talkers to Washington, D.C., to San Diego, to ceremonies, fairs and other gatherings.”

Kawano’s name soon became synonymous with the Code Talkers, and his work was shown throughout the U.S. and Japan. His photos also helped the Code Talkers claim their place in national and military history, MacDonald says. “He’s probably the one who has spread the most word about the Code Talkers with his beautiful photographs. He’s a good person and he needs to be recognized for the role he played in publicizing the Code Talkers.”

In 2001, nearly 60 years after the Code Talkers served, they received the Congressional Gold Medal. By the time that recognition came, however, about 300 of the Code Talkers had died. Kawano has photographs of about 125 of the men, he said.
Comment:  For more on Indians and photography, see Project to Photograph 562 Tribes and Greatest Photographs of the American West.

Below:  "Kenji Kawano in his Window Rock, Arizona darkroom. (Alysa Landry)

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