Very few people today have not heard of Navajo Code Talkers. It may even be taken for granted that codetalkers are among the veterans who ring the Stock Market opening bell on this Veteran’s Day, 2010.
But for nearly 50 years, very few knew about the linguistic feats of the Diné speakers who used their own language to befuddle the Japanese code breakers during World War II. (Members of other Indian nations were involved, but the Navajo were in the majority.) USA Today interviewed our friend, Zonnie Gorman.
It didn’t help that the men were told by the military not to talk about their service and their work remained classified until 1968, says Zonnie Gorman, the daughter of a Code Talker who has recorded an oral history of their work. Her father, Carl Gorman, was one of the original 29 who devised the code.
“Twenty years ago, if you said ‘Navajo Code Talkers,’ the majority of people would say, ‘Who?’ ” Gorman says. “At least today the majority of people have at least heard of them.”
Carl Gorman (1907-1998), unlike the dozens of Code Talkers who returned to anonymity on the reservation, became a world-famous artist and teacher of art. Perhaps it was the involvement of this artist in the Code Talkers that confused biographers who claimed that Quincy Tahoma was a Code Talker.
You will find, in reference after reference, that Tahoma served in World War II, and in more than one, you will read that he was a Code Talker. Unfortunately, people still tend to assume that if a Navajo was in World War II, he was a Code Talker. Not so. While an enormous percentage of young men enlisted–in 1942, it is said the entire Santa Fe High School Football Team marched to the recruiting office together–only 400 served in the secretive Code Talkers. We have even read that the artist Harrison Begay was a Code Talker, even though the Navajo speakers were used in the Pacific, and Begay served in Europe. The myths die hard.
We began to question the liklihood of Tahoma’s armed forces service as we talked to many people who knew him and learned that he had a crippled arm. When we were able to interview Harrison Begay, who was probably Tahoma’s closest friend, Begay stated unequivocally that Tahoma wanted to enlist, but was the equivalent of 4-F. Little by little, we pieced together Tahoma’s life during the war years, and he was in Santa Fe all that time. This was our first strong indication that we needed to confirm every so-called “fact” we read.
Tahoma graduated in 1940 and stayed primarily in Santa Fe. Surely it was emotionally wrenching to watch all of his friends going off to war. He contributed to the war effort in different ways–creating a winning poster in the Treasury Department’s Buy Bonds campaign, and another for the Red Cross. (The 1942 painting is the property of the Santa Fe Chapter of the American Red Cross, and we purchased prints from them.)
He attended parties for the wounded servicemen sent back to Santa Fe Indian Hospital for recovery. He painted a picture of a soldier returning to his family on the Navajo reservation. (It is now at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.) And at one point he was sought for a top secret job….but that is a long story, only part of which we have uncovered.
We want to send good wishes to all the American Indian men and women who served so willingly in the wars of this country. When we asked Ramos Sanchez, who was in the Navy in the Pacific, why the Pueblo Indians were so eager to enlist, he looked at us as though we were crazy. “They attacked our country,” he said. The long history of disputes over treaties and battles over territory were forgotten. Thank you, Harrison and Ramos and all the others who have served OUR country in World War I and II and afterwards.