To avoid arguments in the White world we are told to avoid talking about religion or politics. We may not have the same taboos against these general topics in Native communities but, certainly, there are two other subjects that most regard as off limits for criticism – elders and veterans and, especially if they are both.
Well, here I go.
In the midst of National Native American Heritage Month – or as I call it our “special month” – and the continuing debacle over Native mascots and team names, the worst being the Washington, D.C. NFL team, we all got to experience a collective moment of cringe. The NFL and D.C. team owner, Dan Snyder, decided that it was somehow appropriate to dig up a couple of elderly Navajo Code Talkers, fly them to D.C., wrap them up in “Redskins” jackets and parade them onto the football field as the “49ers” beat up on the “Redskins” (I might add there’s a little irony there, too).
The sleaziness of taking advantage of these much-heralded figures in American history and folklore was certainly not missed by anyone. In fact, I agree with all the criticisms lodged against this publicity stunt.
But here is where I am asking for trouble.
What about the Code Talkers? What were they thinking?
Unlike so many across our vast lands, I am not prone to heap adulation on every Native who enlisted in military service for the U.S. or Canada. It’s ironic to me – and it should be to you, too – that at the dawn of the 20th century it somehow became okay for our people to change sides. After a century of bloody conflicts, massacres, hangings, land theft, prisons and concentration camps/reservations, fraud and outright war, slipping into the uniforms of our enemies became fashionable.
Today, it has been drummed into our heads that our enlistment rates are the highest per capita of any “ethnic” population and we should be proud of this fact. Whether this is borne out of the residential/boarding school era, conversion to Christianity or a general “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality or some desperate hope for acceptance… well, I’ll leave the theories for those with a whole lot of letters after their names to debate. But there is little question that throughout the 20th century our people began to buy into American patriotism.
In addition to the irony of Natives serving in the U.S. military, there’s an even higher level of irony associated with the Code Talkers. Consider this – take a people who were having their languages and identities destroyed by active government policy at a level that meets the standard for genocide. and then here come some military analysts struggling to develop secretive communications in WWII with a great idea! “Hey Joe, do you think we still have any of those savages running around speaking that gibberish we been trying to beat out of them for all these years?” How opportune to “find” a collection of sophisticated languages that no one else knows. The greatest irony rests in the fact that these languages were actively being destroyed and there was virtually no written record of them. What a great idea!
What developed was the Native Code Talker Program. Grab up or otherwise convince some “Injuns” who still speak their languages to put on a U.S. uniform, put some in the field with radios and never – and I repeat never – let them be captured alive. Bingo! The U.S. has an unbreakable code.
Now don’t for a second think that this interest in our languages or our people would change the U.S. or Canadian policies of trying to destroy them or us. No, this was an opportunistic exploitation and appropriation of something that was ours for their use. While many praise this and take pride that we had something they needed, I just shake my head and think, yeah, like our land, our resources and even that gold the real 49ers were chasing after.
I don’t begrudge Code Talkers or any of our people who enlist. I have many friends and relatives who not only enlisted but also served in active duty with honor and distinction. But they weren’t fighting or enlisting for me or for Native communities. Perhaps their personal choices to fight for the good ole U.S of A. did involve some sense of representing Native people as noble or as “freedom fighters” but these military complexes aren’t about freedom or democracy. They are about defending national interests and the corporations with a stake in them, even back in the 40s.
The use of these young men and our language may have served a greater good in the eyes of many but, nonetheless, it was an exploitation of very young men and our Native languages.
Those men are not so young now. In fact, most are gone. In recent years, the Code Talkers have been held up as “American Heroes” and have earned medals and honors along the way. In a twisted attempt to take advantage of our “special month,” the professional sports franchise at the center of the team name and mascot debate decided to “honor” four Navajo Code Talkers in a much-derided ceremony.
My question to these men and their families is this: Why did they go? Why allow this exploitation? Perhaps the exploitation of these men when they were young, the very thing that made them famous, is justified but being used as young men is one thing. The actions of those with a lifetime behind them are quite another. We can’t simply cry foul about how they were used as if these guys were incapable of understanding the situation. We can’t cherish the wisdom of these elders on one hand and then on the other hand suggest that they were somehow oblivious to the message they were sending, especially when a few decided to offer their unsolicited support for the “Redskins”, suggesting as Dan Snyder has, that it’s some sort of term of endearment.
I wrestle with the whole idea of honoring Native veterans of U.S. and Canadian military service as “Warriors.” And whether these guys believe it’s okay or not, I refuse to honor them as “Redskins.”