See Navajo Code Talkers through the lens of Kenji Kawano at new Navajo Nation Museum exhibit
WINDOW ROCK, Arizona — Shirley Haswood got teary-eyed when she saw the photograph of her late father in the exhibit about the Navajo Code Talkers that opened this week at the Navajo Nation Museum here.
Standing next to the photo at the opening reception on Aug. 12, Haswood explained that she was an adult when she learned that her father, Johnny Alfred, was a code talker.
"We knew he was in the Marines, but he never told us, 'I'm a code talker," Haswood said.
She added, "he didn't really like to talk about it – about what he went through – he said that because they went through so, so, so, so much tragedy."
In the photo, Alfred looks directly into the camera with his hand extended, holding his Purple Heart medal.
Kenji Kawano took Alfred's photo in 1989 in Tuba City, Arizona, the portrait was part of Kawano's book about the code talkers, "Warriors."
The opening of "Navajo Code Talkers: Through the Lens of Kenji Kawano," coincides with Navajo Code Talkers Day on Aug. 14, a tribal holiday rooted in the action taken by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 that designated the date as National Navajo Code Talkers Day.
Kawano is a photographer who arrived on the Navajo Nation in 1974 from his native country, Japan.
He has been photographing the code talkers since 1975, becoming well-acquainted with many of the men over the decades.
Kawano said in an interview on Aug. 11 that he became aware of the group after a chance encounter with Carl N. Gorman, who was one of the original 29 code talkers.
The code talkers were U.S. Marines who used the Navajo language to transmit messages during the Pacific battles against Japanese forces in World War II.
Gorman and his wife picked up Kawano in summer 1975 when the photographer was hitchhiking from Window Rock to where he was staying in Ganado, Arizona.
Kawano eventually learned that Gorman was a code talker and part of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
Gorman took Kawano to an association meeting later that year. From there, Kawano started photographing the men at various events and developed friendships with several members.
In 1987, Kawano decided to pursue developing a photography book about the group – up to 420 men trained as code talkers.
Kawano remembers driving throughout the tribal land to visit code talkers at home, where he took their photos and conducted interviews.
"They shared with me their war experience – some are funny, some are very serious. When I display my pictures, I always use what they said during the interviews," Kawano said.
Sixteen images from that 1990 book are in the exhibit, which was developed by Kawano along with his wife, Ruth, and Zonnie Gorman, Carl N. Gorman's daughter and historian on the code talkers.
"'Warriors' is still in print today and it remains one of the most popular books about the Navajo Code Talkers. These images have also appeared in museum shows in Japan and in Germany as well as news articles and magazines from as far away as places like Jordan. There's no doubt that Kenji's images and his book have helped educate people around world about our Navajo warriors," Gorman said.
There are more than 90 black and white photos in exhibit, spanning from 1975 to the present year.
It is the largest gallery about the code talkers ever assembled for public viewing, Gorman said.
Manuelito Wheeler, the museum director, said the trio brought the idea to the museum more than two years ago but the coronavirus pandemic detained its realization.
"I think one of the reasons I'm happy that this exhibit is going on is it brings attention and honor to the Navajo Code Talkers," Wheeler said.
After the release of "Warriors," several families of code talkers who did not appear in the book asked Kawano to photograph their veterans.
Twenty-two portraits from this second endeavor form the second section of the exhibit.
The third section is 54 photos comprised of candid shots of the men throughout the years, beginning in the mid-1970s and ending this year with a portrait of John Kinsel Sr. at his home in Lukachukai, Arizona.
The only code talker that attended the opening reception was Kinsel, one of four surviving code talkers.
After meeting more than 100 code talkers and accumulating hundreds of images, Kawano had to decide which photos to show – not an easy task, he said.
"My message is, I think I want many Navajo people to come over, to see code talkers' pictures. Because everybody should be proud about what Navajo Code Talkers did during World War II for this country," Kawano said.
The "Navajo Code Talkers: Through the Lens of Kenji Kawano" exhibit is at the Navajo Nation Museum, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, in Window Rock.
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.
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