chester-nez-1Earlier this month, a significant chapter in indigenous history came to a close with the death of 93-year-old Chester Nez in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Jan. 23, 1921 – June 4, 2014). Chester was not the name given to him as an infant by his Navajo parents. He no longer remembered that name. Chester was the name given to him at the boarding school where he learned that speaking Navajo was a bad and traitorous thing to do. Speaking Navajo earned him punishments that went on for a week after the ‘offence’ … punishments like enduring the bitter taste of brown soap that was used to wash his mouth clean of the language of his people, the Black Sheep Clan who herded sheep on a New Mexico reservation.

It was while he was at a boarding school, that Chester was recruited by the U.S. Marines in the spring of 1942, just four months after the attack on Pearl Harbour which left Americans feeling uncomfortably uncertain about the outcome of WWII. He and 28 other young Navajo men would form ‘the original 29’ who would turn the war around in the Pacific. What skill did Chester and the other men possess? What enabled these men to affect the outcome of the second World War, and thereby the lives of all of us living today? Get set for the irony: their ability to speak Navajo!

Chester was the last remaining member of the original 29 code talkers, who developed a code based on their Navajo language that stymied the Japanese, who had thus far cracked every code that had been devised. The extremely complex and unwritten Navajo language enabled military intelligence to be relayed between American marine units fighting in the Pacific battles (Guadalcanal, Guam, Tarawa, Peleliu, Bougainville, Angaur, Saipan and Iwo Jima).

For 13 weeks, the original 29 worked to create a code that used Navajo words to convey military information. The code drew upon embellished Navajo words that approximated the battle vocabulary they would need to master. A submarine became an iron fish. A commanding general became a war chief. A tank was a tortoise and a grenade was a potato. In the event that an English word had to be spelled out, an encrypted alphabet was created by assigning each of the 26 letters a Navajo translation of an English word that started with that letter. For example, to spell Camp Elliot, a code talker would use the Navajo word for Elk – Lamb – Lamb – Ice – Owl – Turkey. Eventually more Navajo men were recruited and for the next 4 years, Chester was one of the 400 radio code talkers who transmitted and translated thousands of messages that facilitated American victories in the Pacific. It is thought that only 12 of those 400 died in battle, and that only 35 of them are still living today.

But Chester was the last of the original 29, and his passing signals the need for some American self-examination because this feel-good story takes a bit of a turn here. When Chester Nez, the war hero, returned home after the war, it was to a state that still did not allow him the right to vote. His relationship with the U.S. had always been a complicated one. The American government had slaughtered the sheep on the reservation where he spent his childhood, claiming that the Navajo shepherds permitted overgrazing of the land. Chester’s father and countless others were left without a livelihood. Still, Chester enlisted in the United States Marines out of a sense of duty to ‘his country’. He claimed that, while serving as a Marine, he was treated well, and yet it is documented that the code talkers, so vital to the war effort, were not given the same opportunities for rest that others were, often working 35 hours straight. But he resisted the argument made by some within the Navajo nation that he had risked everything to help the country that had never done anything for them, except repeatedly break promises. Chester’s own sister, died, an old woman, in a home that had never been wired for electricity, in spite of years of being told that it would happen soon. After the war, he and the other code talkers remained dutifully silent about their role, since the military wanted to be able to use the code again in future conflicts… which they did – in Korea, where Chester fought again as a Marine, and then in Viet Nam. However, in spite of the code being de-classified in 1968, it was not until 2001 that the American government got around to recognizing the Navajo code talkers. Only 5 of the original 29 were still living to receive the honour of a gold medal in a ceremony which, although it glowingly acknowledged the role of the Navajo, came decades too late.

When Hollywood took notice, after a book written about the code talkers was released, producers did what they always do: tell someone else’s story through American characters. Indeed the 2002 film “Windtalkers” was by far, a story focused more on the American marines (played by Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater) who were assigned to protect the Navajo code talkers, than on the code talkers themselves (played by Adam Beach and Roger Willie).

The Navajo code word for America was ne-ha-mah “Our Mother”. Mother has not been so good to her children.

This documentary film was researched, photographed, edited and produced by students of Winona State University (Winona, Minnesota) and Diné College (Tsaile, Arizona, Navajo Nation) during summer 2012.