Indigenous Cultures Awareness Month at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin is underway, and it was kicked off in a grand way with a talk by a living hero.
Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the original Navajo Code Talkers from World War II, spoke before a crowd of around 1,000 people at the college on Friday, March 1. Nez was among the original 29 Navajo Marines who developed a code within their own language to aid the war effort against the Japanese. The code remains the only unbroken code in modern warfare. Nez spoke about his experience as a Code Talker in the South Pacific at Guadalcanal and Guam.
“We never thought it would work, but we developed a code that the Japanese could not understand,” Nez said, according to a press release from the college.
Nez shared his experience about being a Code Talker with Judith Avila.
The two co-wrote the book Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.
During the war, the code talkers developed an encrypted alphabet from English to Navajo. The letter A in English stood for the word Ant in the Navajo language. In some instances, the code used common words for everyday items, animals or birds to refer to military vehicles. For example, the Navajo word for turtle referred to tanks. Fighter planes were described as hummingbirds.
“It made it so that they could easily memorize the words,” said Avila, in the release.
The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs presented Nez with a plaque from Gov. Scott Walker honoring Nez for his service during the presentation Friday evening. Veteran honor guards from tribes across Wisconsin, including the Lac Courte Oreilles, Oneida and Mole Lake tribes, participated in the opening ceremony to recognize the importance of warriors in native culture.
“I know some of these Code Talkers were wounded, but, in the long run, they were proud to serve their country and their people,” said Nez.
Nez was assigned to the 1st Marines Division in the South Pacific. When other soldiers went for rest and relaxation, the Navajo Code Talkers were asked to stay behind.
“They stayed in battle the whole entire time. It was an amazing feat,” said Avila. “They were exhausted and often they would go 24 to 35 hours without food or rest.”
Kat Werchouski, coordinator for multicultural programs at Northland and also a Red Cliff tribal member, said meeting Nez was like a dream come true.
“The code talkers changed history for World War II. Without this code, it¹s been said that the U.S. may have lost the war,” said Werchouski.
“The energy that he carries is that of an honorable elder who has served as a cultural warrior for his entire life a status most of us can only dream of obtaining. Words can not begin to describe the respect, pride, and honor I carry for the opportunity to introduce these beautiful people to our home.”
Around 40 to 70 Code Talkers are estimated to still be living. No one knows the number for certain because the nature of their military service was classified for 23 years following their service, according to Avila. Nez is the only member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers alive today.
Northland College invited Nez to campus as one of the featured speakers and programs offered during Indigenous Cultures Awareness Month during March. The events seek to further understanding and education of indigenous culture through the Native American and Indigenous Culture Center (NAICC) at Northland College. The events, offerings in the Northland College Community Connections series, are all free and open to the public. T
One of the culminating highlights of the month's events will be the 39th Annual Northland College Spring Powwow, to be held March 23 in the Kendrigan Gymnasium on campus. Grand entries are scheduled for at 1 pm and 7 pm. The Community Feast is at 5 pm.
For more information about Indigenous Cultures Awareness Month and to view a full listing of events, go to Northland.edu/naicc.