FLAGSATAFF, Ariz. - Japanese photographer Kenji Kawano, born in Fukuoka in 1949, was not yet born when a group of modern-day Navajo warriors, known as the Code Talkers, defied Japanese intelligence during World War II. By communicating in their own language, the Navajo Code Talkers provided the U.S. Marines with an unbreakable code.
Now, more than a half century later, Kenji Kawano's photographs capture the spirit of those Navajo Code Talkers, whose code was never broken. Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, at the Museum of Northern Arizona through Oct. 9, is an exhibit of 20 black and white photographs, each a handcrafted, gelatin-silver print on archival-quality paper.
As the Japanese continued to break every code the Americans devised, the Code Talkers provided the military with a perfect code: the Navajo language. Recruited from the Navajo Reservation, in the far reaches of Arizona and New Mexico, Navajo Marines were sent off to Camp Pendleton, California to attend both basic and Field Signal Battalion training. Their training included the special development of a new Navajo vocabulary, which encompassed military terms, the art of message transmission, wire laying, and pole climbing. Upon completing their training, the Code Talkers were sent to the Pacific to put their skills to the test. As the end of the war arrived, over 400 Navajo Code Talkers had been assigned across the entire Asian-Pacific Theater, representing every Marine Division. They took part in every Marine assault, from Guadalcanal in 1942 to Okinawa in 1945. U.S. Marine Major Howard Conner has stated, "Were it not for the Navajo, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
Shortly after traveling to Arizona in 1974, Kawano met Carl Gorman in Window Rock, Arizona. As they got to know one another, Kawano learned of his assignment as a Code Talker during World War II. After attending his first Navajo Code Talkers Association meeting with Gorman's invitation, Kawano began to befriend this influential group of men. In 1980, six years after venturing onto the reservation, Kawano became the official photographer of the Navajo Nation. In 1987, he began photographing the Navajo Code Talkers for his book, Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, features an additional 50+ portraits and is available in the Museum's Bookstore. Today, Kawano continues to capture the lives of the Navajo people.