It is a pleasant thing when those who deserve recognition get it, and former-President Bill Clinton’s decision to award the Navajo Code Talkers, whose immeasurable contribution to the war effort helped ensure a U.S. victory, rightly brings us satisfaction.
Still, we cannot help but note that it took over five decades for these men to receive the level of recognition they deserve.
Yes, we may say that the code talkers could not be recognized immediately; their contribution to the war remained classified until 1968. And since that time, it is true that they have received more attention and respect. But it has taken over 30 years since declassification for this particular, and very fitting, award to be bestowed on the men who made great sacrifices to defend their native soil.
But perhaps even more frustrating is how overlooked the value of diversity —diversity of culture and language— still is. Until these Navajo soldiers arrived on the scene in World War II, the United States’ codes weren’t passing muster. It took a code in another language, one obscure enough to the rest of the world, to foil enemy attempts to break it.
The irony is obvious, since the Navajo, and every other indigenous person in America, had been discouraged, or worse, from speaking their own language. If all attempts to eradicate Native languages, or indeed Native peoples, had been successful, where would we have been? Where would we be today?
And the Navajo weren’t the only ones creating codes to win the war— the Hopi, Choctaw, Sioux, Seminole, and Chippewa developed codes, all based on their Native languages.
In 1839, a little-known playwright by the name of Baron Edward Bulwer Lytton, coined the well-known phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Indeed, as the Navajo Code Talkers so handily demonstrated, words can be mighty weapons.
Yet once again, we are faced with bias against language, and its underlying bias against culture. By popular vote, it is to be English-Only in our schools. People are, once again, being discouraged from speaking their own languages, the language of their homes and their culture.
Ostensibly, English-Only is meant to help children acclimate to the school environment more quickly and learn what they need to more easily. It’s a very pretty idea, if we only look skin deep.
But we should look deeper.
Language creates a closed culture for those who cannot speak it. Who among us has not stood in a group of people speaking a language we do not understand? Who among us has not felt the paranoia or uncertainty because we do not know what is being said? Are they speaking about us? About something we really should know? No doubt about it —language contains raw power. It binds people together; it gives them strength. In a simple word, a little nugget of sound, lays the breadth of human intention and endeavor: the power to create or destroy, love or kill, or any range in between. Sometimes, a single word, depending on how it is used, can contain it all.
In this country we have a wide variety of cultures, many with their own distinct languages. Among Native Americans, as with other groups, keeping the culture alive is tantamount to survival as a people, and integral to that process is the survival of the language. If the children are not allowed to speak their language, even if it is just at school, the culture weakens. And perhaps that is exactly what some people want.
Frightened of difference, they aim to eliminate it. Bereft of the absolute power they feel their language—the “Universal” language—should afford them, they try to make sure that it is the only language taught in our schools.
But Native languages should not be taboo; children should be allowed to exalt in a varied and diverse world, where they can speak their language, along with English and any other language they choose.
Native peoples, and the Navajo Code Talkers, know that it was the world of diversity that helped the United States win the war.
We have to ask ourselves, will be so lucky the next time?