Tribute for Code Talkers debated
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 2, 2007

Jessica Coomes

Six decades after World War II ended, state lawmakers want to honor the Navajo Marines who used their language to create secret codes to foil Japanese enemies.

However, some people say proposals to fund a Navajo Code Talkers state monument and recommend a commemorative stamp marginalize similar wartime contributions from other tribes.

"We feel our tribe is also entitled to recognition of our Code Talkers,"
said Philip Quochytewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe who told a Senate committee recently that his uncle was a Code Talker. By a close margin Thursday, state senators quashed a proposal that would have included all Native American Code Talkers in a commemorative postage stamp and instead chose to honor just Navajos.

Navajos' roles as Code Talkers are well-documented and more widely known than those of other tribes.

For example, all Arizona fourth-graders in October received The Unbreakable Code, a book in which a Navajo Code Talker teaches his grandson about his mission. One proposed design for Arizona's state quarter features Navajo Code Talkers. And in 2002, Hollywood released Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage, which tells the story of Navajo Code Talkers.

Sen. Jake Flake, R-Snowflake, said he grew up in Arizona and heard about other tribal Code Talkers only last year. He voted against including other tribes in the stamp.

"This honor goes to the Navajos," Flake said.

As many as 400 Navajos are reported to have served as Code Talkers. Their operation was much larger than those conducted with members of other tribes.

Keith Little, of Crystal, N.M., served as a Navajo Code Talker, but he said he could not talk about his role until the operation was declassified in 1968.

"We were never recognized and kept silent for many years because of the secrecy," but now "we would like to have our legacy remembered," he said.

"The Navajo Code Talkers served in the United States Marine Corps for America and for the world with integrity," Little told a state Senate committee recently.

Zonnie Gorman, who said her father was a Navajo Code Talker, researches her tribe members' code contributions and is documenting their efforts.

She said the Navajo Marines based the unbroken code on the Navajo language, but it was formed in such a way that not even a Navajo speaker would understand what was being said.

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, which does not represent the Navajo Nation, wrote a letter to lawmakers asking that the commemorative stamp recommendation recognize all Native American Code Talkers, specifically including Hopis.

Sen. Meg Burton Cahill, D-Tempe, asked her fellow senators to include all Native Americans in the stamp; otherwise, she said, it would be "historically incorrect."

"There were Native Americans from many tribes who contributed to this," she said.

Burton Cahill's proposal on Thursday failed, 15-13. Sen. Albert Hale, D-Window Rock, is Navajo, and he opposed Burton-Cahill's proposal.

Sen. Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park, said he planned to work with the Hopi Tribe next year to create a separate honor.

Of the Navajos, he said: "This honor is long overdue."

In a committee hearing, Flake described the controversy as an "unfortunate situation."

"To me, 'Code Talkers' belongs to the Navajos," he said. "They're the ones who perfected this."

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-6848 or