'They fought for our language': Navajo Code Talkers honored for service
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — A silence fell over the audience when Navajo Code Talker Thomas H. Begay sang the "Marines' Hymn" in the Navajo language.
It is a language Begay is all too familiar with and served him and up to 420 Navajo men who used Diné Bizaad — the Navajo word for the language — to transmit messages during the Pacific campaign of World War II.
It was a code that remained unbreakable throughout the war. The men's military work was declassified in 1968. The elite group was recognized nationally in a 1982 proclamation signed by President Ronald Reagan.
The proclamation, which received backing by Congress, designated Aug. 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day. It is recognized as a tribal holiday on the Navajo Nation.
Begay, along with code talkers Peter MacDonald Sr., John Kinsel Sr. and Joe Vandever Sr. attended activities surrounding the holiday on Aug. 14 at Veterans Memorial Park in Window Rock.
While it is unknown how many code talkers may still be alive, the four — along with Samuel Sandoval — are considered the remaining five members.
In his remarks, Begay reflected on the establishment of National Navajo Code Talkers Day, including meeting with members of Congress to seek recognition for the group.
"The highest people on this land — the lawmakers — made this decision, recognizing the Navajo Code Talkers. That's why we are here today. It takes that," Begay said.
The leaders of the three branches of the tribal government recognized the significance of the code talkers in their remarks.
"We have to be really, really thankful and I know that we are. They fought for our language, they fought for our freedom," Chief Justice JoAnn Jayne said.
Navajo Nation Council Speaker Seth Damon became emotional when he talked about his great-grandfather and code talker, Notah Begay Sr.
"He died in 1968, before he was federally recognized as a Navajo Nation Code Talker. We have a lot of those individuals too. We have individuals who have passed on, who did not get honored," Damon said then called on the people to thank the code talkers, who he called the "cornerstone" in Navajo history.
Family members of code talkers who have died recognized and commemorated their loved ones in a parade that started at the Navajo Nation fairground then proceeded to the Veterans Memorial Park.
Janelle Begay stood with her daughter, Ellana Williams, along the route. Begay applauded each family and community group while Williams took video using a smartphone.
Begay was raised by her grandfather, Jimmie Begay, a code talker who died in February 2012.
"We are remembering him — our hero," she said about her family's annual participation in the event, which includes displaying photographs of her grandfather in a booth set up near the honoring ceremony.
"He was an important part of our lives. Growing up he'd teach us about the Navajo code and about his boot camp," Begay said.
Kevin Sharp, executive officer of the Mountain View Young Marines, said 150 members from the national youth service program were assisting at the event.
"For the kids, this is living history," Sharp said.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/216TU0e