In their 'twilight years,' Navajo code talkers called to service to help save endangered Native languages

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Three of the last living Navajo Code Talkers, whose Native Diné (Navajo) language was used as a secret code by the United States military during World War II and was never broken, were in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 13 and 14 visiting the White House and Capitol Hill.

The three code talkers (Keith Little, Merril Sandoval and Samuel Tso)-all of them in their 80s and who served in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, during World War II-were in Washington to urge the President and members of Congress to support an effort to preserve endangered and dying Native languages in House Resolution 4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Language Act of 2006. The proposed act recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives and was pending in the Senate at the time of their visit.

Several national nonprofit groups that advocate for the rights and needs of Native American tribes and peoples, including the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Gaming Association, among others, are supporting the effort promoted by the code talkers on behalf of all the Native peoples of the United States.

"The Navajo Code Talkers have been called into action one more time, they are taking to Capitol Hill this week in an unprecedented effort to save one of America's greatest legacies-its Native languages," said Ryan Wilson, president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota. "Not only are these languages cherished by Indian country, but they also are a part of the sacred heritage of America... The Navajo Code Talkers themselves represent the best in America; and these 'living treasures' have chosen to use their remaining breaths in life to give life once again to Native languages"

The Code Talkers have long been considered some of this country's staunchest patriots. Among other Native American Code Talkers, which included Choctaws, Cheyennes, Comanches, Creeks, Cherokees, Osages, Menominees, Ojibwas and Yankton Sioux, whose service included both world wars, the Navajo Code Talkers are special. The codes of the other tribes were all eventually broken; only the Navajo's code remained intact. Theirs was the only code that was spoken at Iwo Jima, a fact that the recently released and critically acclaimed Hollywood film, "Flags of Our Fathers" highlights. It is a wellknown fact that the United States military's deployment of the Navajo Code Talkers and the use of the Dine language led to the U.S.'s decisive victory over its opponents. In 2001, President Bush presented Congressional Gold Medals to the Navajo Code Talkers.

"Our Navajo Code Talkers have been emboldened by the respect and popularity of the recent 'Flags of our Fathers' movie; it has given them hope that America once and for all will commit to saving the very languages that were used to save America," said Lillian Sparks, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, and who is Oglala/Sicangu Lakota. "The Code Talkers helped lift the flag at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima: now, they ask the American flag to stand for them and lift up our sacred Native languages."

The Code Talkers made a special public appearance at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian on the evening of the Nov. 13, during a special program to celebrate National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. The event, which was free and open to the public, was co?sponsored by the National Indian Gaming Association, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association. Former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) was the program's host.

"Over the past 500 years, our communities have seen the majority of our Native languages become endangered, and many of them die," said National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Chairman Ernest Stevens, Jr., a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. "Today, the National Indian Gaming Association joins with its sister organizations, the National Indian Education Association, the new National Alliance to Save Native Languages, the National Congress of American Indians, and others, to fight to protect our indigenous languages, our most precious resource for future generations of the Native peoples of this land."

For more information about House Resolution 4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Language Act of 2006, visit NIEA's website (listed below).

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