Filed Under Arizona

Tricksters of World War II

Navajo Code Talker Memorials in the Four Corners Region

There are four memorials to the Navajo Code Talkers in Arizona and the "Four Corners" region - the area where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. These monuments help us understand the history of Navajo code talkers in the United States Marine Corps.

Navajo Code Talker memorial statues in Arizona, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation reflect the complex relationship between the United States government, indigenous peoples, and the "memory politics" of recent years.

The Navajo Code Talkers were recruited in 1942 to use their indigenous language (Diné) to develop a sophisticated communications code believed to have helped win World War II in the Pacific theater. United States Marine Corps proponents of Navajo code-making petitioned for the use of the language, which differs from that of neighboring indigenous communities. Furthermore, they argued, "Navaho (sic) is the only tribe in the United States that has not been infested with German students during the past twenty years."

The Navajo people, who refer to themselves as Diné, are indigenous to the Southwestern United States. The Navajo Nation encompasses 27,000 miles of land straddling New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, known as the Four Corners region. The Navajo Nation sent 3600 individuals to serve during World War II, approximately 400 of whom were code talkers. Three hundred Navajo soldiers were killed, including 7 code talkers. When they returned to their native lands, some Navajo veterans participated in healing ceremonies using traditional medicine to rid them of the demons of war. Still, otherwise, their war service was yet to be publicly acknowledged.

Considered essential in helping to win the war against the Japanese, the Code Talkers, "who risked their lives encoding, relaying, and decoding critical messages under extreme battle conditions," were not recognized officially for their service until 1982, when President Ronald Reagan authorized Navajo Code Talkers Day. Although the declassification of information about their activities came in 1969, it would be another 8-9 years before the 29 original and subsequent 300+ Code Talkers received Congressional gold and silver medals for their service. This recognition resulted in the dedication of four memorials to the Navajo Code Talkers in the Four Corners region.

The oldest memorial, at 22 Thomas Rd in Phoenix, Arizona, depicts a single seated male figure dressed in Native clothing and holding a flute in front of Phoenix Plaza, a multi-story office building. The second Phoenix statue is a copy of a code talker figure designed by Navajo sculptor Oreland Joe. At 16 feet tall, it was dedicated in Wesley Bolin Memorial Park in 2008 with an accompanying interpretive sign written in English.

A third Code Talker Statue sculpted by Oreland Joe sits within Veteran's Memorial Park outside of Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation. The statue features a single kneeling helmeted Marine operating a radio, with the soldier carrying communications equipment on his back and a machine gun on his lap. The Window Rock statue, erected in 2004, is surrounded by scenic red rocks in the Veteran's Memorial Park adjacent to tribal headquarters, with an interpretive sign written in English. Finally, a similar 8.5-foot statue in bronze featuring a standing Code talker was placed near downtown Gallup, New Mexico, by the Southwest Indian Foundation.

To understand the Code Talker statues, one must first consider the complicated history of US-Native American government policy and the cultural commodification of Native Americans. In manifest destiny, the Navajo people were displaced from their ancestral lands to Bosque Redondo in present-day New Mexico, where they were starved and forced to walk back to their homeland (The Long Walk) in the 1860s. Other policies included the equivalent of cultural genocide—removing Navajo children from their homeland and sending them to boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their language and forced to abandon traditional attire for the Western costume. Navajo people experienced numerous problems due to US Uranium mining within their lands and subsequent unauthorized experimenting on Native miners. Not until after World War II in 1948 did Native Americans receive the right to vote in Arizona, New Mexico, and US elections.

In 1989, the first Code Talker memorial statue, an 18-foot bronze, was dedicated on the grounds of Phoenix Plaza, a privately owned 20-story office building. This code talker is dressed in native moccasins, wearing a squash blossom necklace and holding a flute. The interpretive sign on the monument is in the Diné tongue with an English translation. The sculptor, Doug Hyde (1946-present), is a veteran and Native American of Nez Perce descent.

The Hyde statue of the code talker in Native dress with a flute portrays the Code Talker not as a soldier or warrior, but as a "peaceful" Native American, without a trace of aggression or militaristic impulse, even though the code talkers were trained soldiers and saw combat. At first glance, it would seem that the individual's identity as a soldier is not distinguishable. The Native American prominence is palatable to the general public, at odds with older "savage" stereotypes. When one looks more deeply, however, the image may identify the Code Talker in Native American tradition as a "trickster" due to the nature of his code-making and breaking activities. In many Southwest indigenous traditions, the flute player (Kokopelli) correlates strongly with the attributes of the trickster.

The 2004 Window Rock statue is very different from the design of Hyde. First, its location is in the capital of the Navajo Nation (home to about 3000 Navajo people according to the 2000 Census), within a Veteran's memorial park established in 1995. As described, the code talker figure is realistic in form and features a single kneeling Navajo Marine dressed in military garb with communications equipment of the era upon his back. Other than the title and location of the sculpture, the figure is indistinguishable from other soldiers of the World War II era. The sculptor, Oreland Joe, was born in 1958 in the Four Corners area and is of Navajo/Ute descent. A copy of the statue also is displayed in Phoenix's Wesley Bolin plaza adjacent to the Arizona state capitol.

Like the Marine Corps statue of Iwo Jima in Arlington, VA, the Joe statue seems to find its pattern after a photograph of an unnamed Native American code talker held in the US Government archives. A plaque accompanies the Navajo Code Talkers memorial within Wesley Bolin Memorial Park in Phoenix that features a quote, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima," attributed to Major Howard Connor of the US Marine Corps.

The Gallup monument, also created by Joe, is very similar to that of the other two Joe Code Talker monuments and was erected in 2005 in the western New Mexico town of approximately 21,000 people, 43.8% of whom identify as Native American as of 2000 according to US Census records. The Gallup statue's difference from its siblings in Window Rock and Phoenix is noted primarily in the stance of the Code Talker, in which he is partially standing rather than crouched. The minimal interpretive sign reads, "29 Marines prepare to depart during World War II/Navajo Code Talkers/Departure/May 4, 1942."

The Navajo Nation itself has been relatively slow to recognize the code talkers. In 2007, 25 years after the US Government's recognition, the Nation established an annual Code Talkers Memorial Day on August 14. Similarly, it was not until 2020 that a national monument to Native American veterans found its position in Washington, DC, despite receiving authorization in 1994. The Washington DC memorial features an abstract rather than figurative design. It is geared toward all Native American veterans vs. World War II code talkers, although an accompanying online exhibit does focus on the Code Talker legacy.

Almost all of the original code talkers have passed away. While oral histories and photographs remain, the four Memorials described here, massive and impervious to weather and time, may be what endures to shape future understanding of the Code Talker experience.

edited by Laura Bailey

Images

Code Talker This enormous bronze is prominently displayed at the corner of two busy streets, Thomas Road and Central Avenue. This bronze is a special tribute to the Navajo Code Talkers who bravely served the nation during WWII. The artist, Doug Hyde created this piece in 1989. The inscription says “This tribute represents the advancement of peace for all generations.” Source: Chris English, "Navajo Code Talkers Tribute," October 10, 2018, Atlas Obscura, accessed February 14, 2024.  Creator: Chris English Date: October 10, 2018
Code Talker in Window Rock Arizona Sculpted by Oreland Joe, this stature of a Native American code talker was unveiled in Window Rock in 2004. Source: flickr: Ron Cogswell
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Creator: Ron Cogswell Date: 11 August 2013
The Legendary Navajo Code Talkers The Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona honors those who saved the Nation by their use of the Navajo language during WWII to create an unbreakable code. Source: Katherine Locke, "Navajo Nation Mourns loss of Another Navajo Code Talker," Navajo Hopi Observer, September 20, 2016. Accessed February 14, 2024. "Code Talker
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Creator: Katherine Locke Date: 20 September 2016
In Honor of the Navajo Code Talkers For their sacrifice and courage to help ensure the United States victory during World War II. Permanently established in 1892, the Santa Fe National Cemetery is the home to numerous plaques and over 59,000 internments. The earliest burials date from 1868 when the War Department re-interred 266 unknown soldiers from the Civil War. Source: DAR Historic Site

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Creator: New Mexico State Organization of the Daughters of the American Revolution Date: 21 March 2013

Location

Window Rock, AZ 86515

Metadata

Naomi Sandweiss, “Tricksters of World War II,” Global World War II Monuments, accessed July 24, 2024, https://worldwariimonuments.org/items/show/5.