John Lewis Taylor says reasons for service were complicated

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FARMINGTON — In terms of math, there is little difference between the number of young Navajo men who became Code Talkers during World War II and those who signed up to serve as scouts for the U.S. Army in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both groups included approximately 400 young men, according to Gallup historian and author John Lewis Taylor. But when it comes to the degree to which their service is recounted and discussed, there is no question that the Code Talkers are by far the better-known bunch, Taylor says, attributing that difference primarily to the passage of time. After all, the more distant an era becomes, the less relevant it often seems.

But Taylor believes the service of those Navajo scouts is well worth remembering and celebrating. His new book, "Navajo Scouts During the Apache Wars," from Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, relates the story of those men, chronicling their role in the army's attempts to subdue the Apaches who resisted the reservation system being imposed on them.

Taylor, a lifelong educator in the Bureau of Indian Affairs system who turned his attention to writing a few years ago after retiring, said during a phone interview from his home in Gallup the Navajo scouts may not have achieved the same degree of fame as the Code Talkers, who became widely recognized only after their operation was declassified nearly 25 years after World War II ended. But he noted that a profound sense of pride endures in their descendants to this day.

He said in the 1920s, there was even a surge in interest in their surviving members, as many of them began applying for government pensions and, for the first time, began relating their experiences in detail.

He recounted how their contributions were described in glowing terms in a newspaper article from the Winslow, Arizona, newspaper and how a federal War Department official traveled to the Southwest to present the survivors with their campaign medals.

"They were highly honored by their families, and many of them went on to become community leaders and medicine men," Taylor said.

But why those young Navajo men chose to enlist in the first place was a question that intrigued Taylor — and many historians before him. After all, in 1873, when the U.S. Army effort to recruit the scouts began, the Navajo people had only recently returned from their forced removal from their homeland to Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico.

On the surface, it seemed to make little sense that any Navajo would willingly join forces with the same oppressors who had so ruthlessly uprooted them from their ancestral home in 1864 and forcibly marched them 300 miles across the state, where they essentially were kept in captivity for up to four years.

Taylor acknowledged that issue is a complicated one. But he said over the course of his research, he came to the same conclusions as other historians who have studied the situation.

It is important to note, Taylor said, that the scouts who served in the U.S. Army did so as individuals, not at the behest of the Navajo people, who had no government at that point. But he said many of them believed they were serving Navajo interests by joining the army, where they could gain a greater understanding of how the U.S. government functioned and craft better relations with the military.

That was especially important, Taylor said, in a tense era when conflicts still arose on a regular basis between Native peoples and the army. Many of those scouts believed that if such a conflict broke out, the Navajo people would be blamed for it, but that they could perhaps reduce the chances of a clash breaking out in the first place. Many of the scouts also policed their own people, dealing with the crimes of wrong-doers.

There were other reasons, as well, Taylor said, including the fact that working for the U.S. Army provided those men with a steady income. He said scouts received the same pay as regular soldiers — $13 a month — and earned even more if they supplied their own horse.

"It gave them a job, gave them something to do," Taylor said. "Reservation life was probably somewhat boring."

The Navajo scouts turned out to be exemplary servicemen, serving with distinction throughout the Southwest.

"They were all noted for their loyalty," Taylor said. "Their desertion rate was far lower than it was for non-Indian soldiers."

When their service was over, many of those same scouts claimed tribal leadership positions because they were experienced in dealing with U.S. government officials, he said, something that also helped the Navajo people hold on to their remaining lands and resist further white encroachment.

Finally, military service was something that just came naturally to many of those in the Navajo culture, he said.

"There is a high degree of patriotism and honoring veterans among Navajo people," he said.

Taylor's book retails for $21.99. It is available at Butler's Office Equipment & Supply Inc. and Bill Malone Trading in Gallup. It is available on line through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Visit arcadiapublishing.com for more information.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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