Listening to the Code Talkers: Whose Story-telling? Whose Artifacts? Whose Spaces?

I’m listening to the Code Talkers.

They tell a story about America that I want to hear.

“My name is Peter MacDonald,” said a righteously proud, now ninety-year-old leader of “the thirteen surviving Navajo Code Talkers” at the White House recently. In a ceremony that should have focused on the pivotal contributions of these Diné/Navajo World War II heroes, controversy emerged.

As multiple Native commentators pointed out quickly on social media, the vital role of the Code Talkers’ protecting crucial information from the enemy through use of the Navajo language was initially diminished in the moment via President Trump’s co-opting the occasion.

He denigrated Senator Elizabeth Warren with the “Pocahontas” reference he’s often used as a put-down and spoke in what a number of listeners felt was a demeaning tone to the courageous elders supposedly being honored.

Furthermore, in what, in retrospect, we might now see as an ironic forecasting of yet another governmental encroachment on Native heritage just announced this week, he positioned the podium where Peter MacDonald would give a brief address just in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson, lead perpetrator in the infamous nineteenth-century Removal of many Native peoples from their homelands—engineering through manipulative political maneuvering what history today often calls the “Trail of Tears.”

But MacDonald determinedly—and compellingly soldiered on. In response to what could have been the dominant narrative of this occasion’s staging, MacDonald offered a counter-narrative.

MacDonald shared what Thomas King might term a “Native narrative,” using story for ethical impact. He presented an account of Code Talker history via what scholars like Scott Lyons and Malea Powell could salute as an example of adept rhetorical sovereignty in action.  MacDonald’s comments first recalled the contributions of the Code Talkers as protectors of America who hid top-secret military messages’ strategic meaning in their Native language. He then offered up an unambiguous, open call to all of us to embrace shared community in these troubled (and often troubling) times. He urged listeners both to celebrate the US’s “diverse communities” (with their “different languages, different skills, different talents, and different religions”) and to honor the “freedom and liberty that we all cherish,” by coming “together as one,” to ensure that America will “remain so strong.”

In advocating, specifically, for a national museum to honor the history of the Code Talkers, MacDonald also pointed to the importance of safeguarding cultural resources as community-building archives. The “code words” used by the Code Talkers during WWII battles had to remain “all subject to memory only,” and could not be shared beyond the code-keepers’ circle, he said, in order to protect secret communiques’ battle-crucial content. But now, he explained, we need to make their story available to all Americans as a reminder of our best national values. This is an archive too important to lose.

I’m afraid that not everyone in the audience grasped the message offered through this vital cultural code. Earlier this week, President Trump announced an un-doing of National Monument status for much of the land that had been established by Presidents Clinton and Obama in Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase-Escalante. Bears Ears National Monument will shrink to less than 20% of its original size. Grand Staircase will be cut approximately in half.

hoodoos_at_sunrise
Hoodoos at sunrise in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

The President’s announcement was held in front of an audience assembled to reflect that there is, we should acknowledge, some local support for this change. In that vein, he has cast the move as a rescue of lands that his Democratic predecessors wrongly grabbed away from potentially productive economic development. However, multiple conservationist groups have raised objections, as NPR has reported.  A lawsuit is already being filed.

Meanwhile, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has also critiqued the decision. He decried the lack of consultation with tribal communities in the region. And Navajo leaders protesting in the Utah Capitol expressed a (sadly futile) wish that Trump would have visited the sites before putting so many ancient cultural artifacts and sacred sites in jeopardy by removing the protection of monument designation.

Cliff formations at Bears Ears National Monument
Cliff formations at Bears Ears National Monument

I wish President Trump had been listening more carefully to the story Diné/Navajo leader Peter MacDonald told.  As Thomas King might remind the President: “Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”

I, for one, am trying to listen to the Code Talkers. I hope others will as well.

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