Navajo Codetalkers

On a sultry day in late July, The United States Marine Corps band was playing the Monty Python theme in the Capitol Rotunda as the domed room filled out to spilling. The occasion was the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers and the publicity surrounding the event — cranked up a few notches by MGM, producers of “Windtalkers,” a film inspired by the WWII heroes — had brought an unusual mix of visitors to the capital. Here were the requisite politicians, including New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, whose legislation to honor the men won rare bipartisan support; Hollywood heavies, notably director John Woo and the film’s star, Nicolas Cage (whose arrival, with current flame Lisa Marie Presley, causes the biggest stir); hundreds of Navajo men and women, the family of the men who carried the code the Japanese couldn’t crack into the worst battles of the Pacific campaign; and members of the media from all over the world, drawn by the odd confluence of showbiz and politics.

Somewhat lost in all this are the men being honored. Of the original 29, only five are alive and only four of them were well enough to make it today. Of the estimated 400 Code Talkers who came later (they will be honored with Congressional Silver Medals in a separate ceremony in the fall), only a handful are here today. These officers of Navajo Code Talkers Association, in their distinctive mustard colored shirts and red caps, are treating the whole thing like a hoot, snapping pictures of the people taking pictures of them.

As the ceremonies begin, Sen. Bingaman adds a little backstory for the uninitiated. Most of these men were teenagers when they volunteered to serve in the wake of Pearl Harbor; as students at missionary and government schools, they were discouraged from using their language. When they returned from the war — everyone of them mustering out as PFCs, just as they had entered — they were given no parades or special recognition. To the contrary, when they returned to the reservation they were told to speak of their mission to no one, and they kept that oath of silence until the mission was declassified in 1969. (One Code Talker told his family he peeled potatoes during the war.)

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American who helped push the stalled legislation through the Senate, spoke of the injustices suffered by the Navajo, including the Long Walk of 1864, in which Navajo people, broken by the American military, were forced to desert their land in the Four Corners region and relocate to camps in eastern New Mexico. “The grandfathers of these men were forced to march 300 miles and were interred for four years” before returning to reservations on Navajo land, he reminds the assembled, as George Washington, ringed by seraphim, gazes down from a painting on the rotunda’s ceiling above.

But it is President George Bush, who arrives at the end of the ceremony to present the medals, who makes note of the irony of the surroundings. Referring to some of the historical oil paintings that ring the round room, including “The Baptism of Pocahontas” and “The Landing of Columbus,” Bush says, “Before all these Europeans there were the First People… [and] the story was theirs alone.”

For a long time, the Code Talkers story was theirs alone. Though heroes to their own people, the Navajo men credited with speeding the end of WWII were best known to war buffs and fans of cryptography. (The Japanese, who’d cut through every American code like a hot knife through butter, were flummoxed by the Navajo language, which before the Code Talkers had never been written down.) But thanks to “Windtalkers” and a forthcoming documentary about the real Code Talkers, their time has arrived — and not a moment too soon. As the rush to get the survivors their Congressional medals indicates, theirs is also part of a larger story, that of the “greatest generation” phenomenon, the call to honor all those who fought the Second World War. But it is also a story grounded in ancient and honorable traditions and problematic history. Small wonder, then, that the story of the attempt to tell their story is rife with competing factions, conflicting accounts, whitewashed history and a mix of motives that resulted in as much comic confusion as competition.

Before concluding his speech and presenting the Code Talkers on the dais with their medals, the president name-checks Albert Smith. At 73, Smith is one of the younger Code Talkers in attendance today; he joined the Marines at the age of 15 and explained his people’s loyalty to a nation that had so wronged them simply: “The code word for America was ‘Our Mother’… that’s why we went in.”

Smith has also served as an advisor on “Windtalkers,” and he shakes the president’s hand as he works the room after the presentation. “I told him I was the person he was quoting,” Smith said later. “He just had this grin on his face.” (Sam Billiston, the president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, was also there that day and laughs about the speech later: “Somebody wrote it for him.” Bush, he points out, is the only president in the last thirty years who hasn’t asked the Code Talkers to march in his inauguration parade.)

Smith is also one MGM’s many guests at the post-ceremony reception held across the street at the Library of Congress, though not the most eagerly anticipated. At a rope line just inside the Library’s doors, camera crews from “Entertainment Tonight” and “Extra” jockey for position as director Woo and his stars make their appearance.

“I just saw Nicolas Cage downstairs!” a Navajo girl squeals on the floor above, while the families of the Code Talkers (all flown in from Navajo country at government expense) queue up for the lavish lunch provided by MGM. Many of these people haven’t seen each other in years and the feeling overall is that of a large family wedding. There are inter-tribal jokes (“They’re giving out beers by tribal affiliation,” says one pony-tailed Navajo, “and Apaches only get two”) and a fair bit of putting on the dog. Karletta Chief, Miss Navajo Nation, is resplendent in a crushed velvet gown and silver crown. Being Miss Navajo Nation is a fulltime job, she tells me; when she finishes she’ll go back to being a pH. D student in environmental engineering at Stanford. Chief is from Monument Valley (“Where they made all the John Ford westerns”) and has honored the Code Talkers as heroes “since I was a young child.”

And are the young Navajo excited about “Windtalkers”? “Some anticipated it would be about the Code Talkers,” she says, “and Navajo men wanted roles. But there’s only one Navajo in the film.”

Roger Willie, the Navajo in question, rises to address the crowd. He speaks to them in Navajo, as Code Talker John Brown, Jr. did to the crowd at the Capitol. (“Maybe Japan is listening,” Brown concluded to great laughter.) But most of the original Code Talkers Willie is speaking to seem to be ready for a nap and as a thunderstorm begins brewing outside, some of the elderly gentlemen are led away by young Marines in dress uniform. Because each of the original Code Talkers in attendance today was given an escort by the Marines. And none, presumably, were there to kill them.

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For that is the premise of “Windtalkers”: Nicolas Cage plays a battle-scarred Marine corporal assigned as a bodyguard to a young Navajo Code Talker (played by Adam Beach) before the bloody battle of Saipan. Cage’s mission, as put to him by his commanding officer in language approved by the Pentagon, “is to keep your Code Talker alive. Should he fall into enemy hands, your mission is to protect the code at all costs. you understand me?”

According to the producing team of Alison Rosenzweig and Tracie Graham, John Woo got it right away. When the writing team of John Rice (Graham’s husband) and Joe Batteer pitched the friend-or-foe fable to the legendary Chinese action director and his partner, Terence Chang, Woo stood up and applauded saying, “That’s my kind of movie!” And when you think about his classic Hong Kong cops-and-robbers flicks (The Killer, Hard Boiled), in which comrades on opposite teams often end up staring down the barrel of each other’s automatic, it’s easy to see why. “He’s got like a demon inside his mind,” Woo says of Cage’s character. Killing a man who your supposed to protect will do that to you.

But none of the surviving Code Talkers recall having such a bodyguard — which is perhaps why “Windtalkers” is being billed as “Inspired by True Events.” “We tried to check around and see who had bodyguards, but nobody wants to admit it,” says Association president Billiston, and even Al Smith, who worked on the film, says none of the men in his division had bodyguards — but insists he heard of some. While even Woo is prepared to call the conceit more  “dramatic” than factual, producer Rosenzweig, whose interest in the Code Talkers launched the film, claims she has seen reference to it in a book entitled “The Unbreakable Code” and the correspondence of Carl Gorman, a member of the original 29 who has since died.

Why all the confusion? According to an article in the Fall issue of Brill’s Content, the Pentagon refused to provide assistance to “Windtalkers” if the words “order to kill” were used, and without the Department of Defense’s cooperation, the movie couldn’t be made. (Francis Coppola came up against the same wall with “Apocalypse Now,” according to Content: the Army insisted it would never order a soldier to “terminate” another soldier, so Coppola ended up funding the film himself — and breaking his bank in the process.) Hence all the nudging and winking about Cage’s mission, with “protect the code” becoming a form of code in and of itself.

Rosenzweig and Graham refuse to comment on what concessions were made to the military, and even those who find the bodyguard idea specious say it’s a meaningless distraction. “The Code Talkers say that didn’t happen, but it makes for a great Hollywood story, I guess,” says Valerie Red Horse, who is making a documentary about the soldiers entitled (perhaps pointedly) “True Whispers.” Red Horse, a Cheyenne, has had first-hand experience with the Hollywood approach to Indians. She was a model for Pocahontas for Mattel and Disney, and with producer Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator, Armaggedon) she was preparing to direct a feature film about the Code Talkers herself when the John Woo film surfaced.

“Gale is very smart,” says Red Horse. “She said we cannot go head to head with another feature if he’s going to have Nic Cage and Christian Slater, ’cause we really didn’t have any name talent.” (Their film, in fact, featured four Navajo leads — with a supporting role for a white man.) That was when they decided to use the interviews they had been doing with the Code Talkers for a documentary, which she hopes will serve as a complement to Woo’s more fantastic film. As a Native American, she believes, she was allowed to go places others might not, including Enemy Way ceremonies of the sort the Code Talkers experienced when they returned from battle to cleanse their spirit of the horrors of war.

“We had a big problem with all our vets coming back to society, and yet these men seem very well-rounded and healthy,” she observes. “I think there might be something to these ceremonies that the rest of the world needs to know about.”

That the rest of the world needs to know about the Code Talkers is something all parties agree upon. Both Billiston and Smith, who found themselves in the odd position of backing different movies about their shared story, speak with great humility of their service. Both went to schools where Navajo was discouraged (“Tradition Is the Enemy of Progress” read a Cultural-Revolution sounding message outside one), both were taken with the John Wayne image of the Marine Corps — and both soon found themselves memorizing a complicated double-code for sending messages during combat. (In the Navajo Code, each letter of the English alphabet is assigned several words in Dine, the Navajo language, that would start with “a” in English. So “a” equals “ant” and the Navajo word for “ant” equals “a.” More commonly used military terms–”war plane” and “hand grenade” for instant — were not spelled out but given counterparts in Dine: the Navajo words for “hummingbird” and “potato” in this case.)

How did they feel about being assigned to use the very language the government had been trying to eliminate? “I thought, Uncle Sam does some strange things,” says Billiston. And neither men have any second thoughts about volunteering. “I looked at it as my responsibility to be in the service, and to assist in protecting Mother Earth,” says Smith simply  Both men also feel strongly about passing their story on to younger generations.

“Windtalkers” costar Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) is among that youth. Though not a Navajo, the Canadian Indian won the approval of the Code Talkers Association after the casting calls held on the reservation yielded only Roger Willie. (“Some of them were quite shy,” Woo says diplomatically of the hundreds of men who auditioned.) Of the Code Talkers the twentysomething says, “You hear the story of the Long Walk, pushing them out of their land and packing them in concentration camps for a number of years before they got to settle on their land — that sucks, dude!” He likes to feel someday a Native American actor will have the clout to star in a film like “Windtalkers,” but this one is nothing to be ashamed of. And despite MGM’s posters for the film, which make it look like Cage has the whole weight of the white man’s burden on his shoulders, the film will probably be huge on the res. “I don’t think anyone will protest or cause problems,” says Red Horse, “beaus the Navajo love Hollywood.”

Something is always lost in translation when two cultures collide, though. The Chinese-born Woo, whose English is more impaired than the English-as-second-language Navajo, wasn’t always sure what Smith was telling him. One night, while filming the invasion of Saipan on a private ranch in Hawaii, Woo tells me, Smith said “‘John, we have visitors.’ I said, ‘What? There are no tourists here.’ And he said, ‘We have two visitors,’ and he pointed at the hill and asked me to look at it… Then I found out he means that they were ghosts — that kind of visitors.”

Smith laughs when I tell him Woo’s story. “That was the trees,” he says. “This was a night scene. The branches of the trees, the way they were reflected moving in the breeze, was like two Indian dancers.” Not ghosts.

“He didn’t get it,” the old veteran says simply. 

 

(Published in Premiere, November 2001)

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