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Hopi Code Talkers Speak Out for Recognition

By Daniel Kraker

Polacca, AZ – Host Intro:
You've probably heard of the Navajo code talkers more than 400 marines who used their native language to develop an unbreakable code during World War II. They received Congressional Medals of Honor for their service. Five years ago even Hollywood paid tribute with the movie Windtalkers.

SFX1: bring up sound from movie The Japanese have busted pretty much every code we've thrown at them, the Corps has developed a new code based on the Navajo language

But members of 18 other tribes also used their languages as weapons of war including the Hopi, whose reservation is completely surrounded by the Navajo. Most have never been recognized away from home. From KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau, Daniel Kraker reports on new efforts to change that.

This fall on the Hopi reservation, more than 60 years after they returned from the Second World War, Hopi code talkers were formally honored for the first time. Eleven Hopi army soldiers used their language to confuse the Japanese only one survives today.

SFX2: Travis Yaiva, Hopi Code Talker, World War II, US Army, 323rd infantry regimen, 81st infantry regimen her voice is cracking duck down applause under track

Cassandra Yaiva, resplendent in a red and white shawl and turquoise necklace, introduces her grandfather, now in his eighties and wheelchair bound. She wraps a Pendleton blanket around his narrow shoulders. Then Darren Vicente, Yaiva's grandson and clinical director at the Hopi health care center, addresses the crowd.

AX1: He will still tell you that he does not see himself as a hero, for what he did there, but to me, and the five generations of his family sitting here, he's a hero to us he inspires me to be a better person, I aspire to be a farmer like he was, I want to learn to sing like all the men have told me he once was able to do in our ceremonies.

Travis Yaiva used his language to defend his country at a time that the federal government was trying to stamp out native languages at Indian boarding schools. Cliff Balinqua works for the Hopi tribe's Veterans office. He remembers code talker Franklin Shupla telling him what happened when he was caught speaking Hopi.

AX3: The matron grabbed his socks, put a soap bar in his sock, wetted it down and stuffed it in his mouth.

Shupla's willingness to use his native language in the war despite that kind of treatment is why many Hopis believe the code talkers have not gotten the recognition they deserve. But Balinqua admits the Hopi have never asked for that recognition with a unified voice.

AX4: Pretty much over the years it has been a choice of Hopi. It's not a very popular thing to be talking about your combat conquests. It's something that we've been taught from childhood.

But now, despite those cultural teachings, some Hopi leaders are beginning to speak out. Phillip Quotsytewa is Travis Yaiva's nephew and a member of the Hopi Tribal Council. This summer he lobbied against a state bill to fund a Navajo code talker monument. Quotsytewa says if Arizona is going to recognize the Navajo, the state should honor Hopi and other Indian code talkers as well.

AX5: I believe as Hopis we kind of keep a low profile, but at the same time they deserve the recognition, I believe now this is a start, hopefully there will be more recognition including at the national level.

In 2001 President Clinton awarded congressional gold medals to the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, and silver medals to the other Navajos who followed. The federal government hasn't recognized any other Indian code talkers. Peter MacDonald, a Navajo code talker and former four-term tribal chairman, says that's because only the Navajos developed a formal code.

AX6: It was so complicated, that not even a Navajo off the reservation listening in would know what we're talking about. As opposed to somebody on the spur of the moment, say, hey you two understand each other's languages, go up to the front lines, send us message. If they're going to get recognized for that, I don't know what you would call them, but please, don't call them Code Talkers.

The Hopi Code Talkers did substitute some Hopi words for terms of battle: for example, the word for eggs was used for bombs. Other Indian Code Talkers did the same. But for the most part, they simply translated messages. Still, the Hopi code was never broken. William Meadows is an anthropology professor at Southwest Missouri State University and an expert on Native American code talkers.

AX7: A code is a form of communication that's unknown to others; it doesn't have to be more or less complex than another one to be effective. That's the thing that's getting lost in these debates.

Meadows believes Congress should recognize all Native American code talkers, not only the Navajo. And he says they should do it while at least a few of them, like Hopi Travis Yaiva, are still alive.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker on the Hopi reservation.