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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Tracing the story of Navajo heroes

    The Arizona State Museum will feature the fascinating and heart-rending exhibit “”Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes… The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II”” on Friday. It was created by Navajo language students and is presented by the Circle of Light Navajo Educational Project, a nonprofit organization coordinated by code talker historian, teacher and UA alumna Zonnie Gorman.

    This traveling exhibit is a multimedia montage of historical photographs, facts, facsimiles of military documents and actual text of the code embellished with audio, video and some artifacts from the Arizona State Museum’s collection. It chronologically presents a story of brave young men achieving feats that have captured the attention of today’s Navajo youth.

    “”The one thing that I really want to stress about the original curation of the show is that it was actually a student project,”” Gorman said. “”It’s quite amazing to me what their interest and their questions brought about. … I think it really shows the sense of pride that the young people have for the Navajo code talkers.””

    The story that Navajo students were so fascinated by begins as follows: In 1942, M. Sgt. Frank Shinn initially recruited 29 Navajo boys on the eve of adulthood to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps in a pilot program to formulate a code utilizing their native language.

    “”First of all, (the students) made the connection, ‘Wow, these guys were 16-, 17- and 18-year old kids like we are.'”” Gorman said. “”They were fascinated with the fact that … their first language was … Navajo, but they were illiterate in the language.

    “”They could speak it fluently, but they couldn’t read and write it,”” Gorman continued. “”So when the Marine Corps asked them to develop a code and they had to write down these words (in) English, … (a) foreign language to them, they took the alphabet and they had to phonetically spell out the Navajo sounds.””

    Once the Navajo code was created, it was impossible for the enemy to crack due to its lack of documentation and linguistic complexities. The code eventually included 700 words with approximately 400 speakers. What followed the success of the Navajo code was a profound impact on winning the war in the Pacific and saving lives.

    The intellectual triumph of these young men created a newfound respect and documentation of a language. The code talkers’ achievements were ironic because they had been previously punished for speaking their language in schools, which had their goals set on assimilating the Navajo people.

    In addition to the exhibit, Gorman will lecture at the Arizona State Museum on July 30, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

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