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The language of patriotism

Monday, June 9, 2014

When I learned of the death of Chester Nez last Thursday, I felt a mixture of sadness and pride with a tinge of nostalgia. Nez had the honour of being one of the original 29 Navajo Indians who developed a secret code that helped the Allied forces to break Japanese dominance in the Pacific theatre during World War II. The Japanese, famous for deciphering secret codes, never broke the Navajo code. 


I learned of Nez’s story in Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers, by Nez and Judith Schiess Avila. It was one of my first experiences with an audio book, and I became mesmerised by this story of language and history. Nez’s story made me realise how many quiet, ordinary men had been forced into the role of heroes. “I’m no hero,” he said in his book. “I just wanted to serve my country.”


At the time Nez and other Navajo Indians volunteered for a secret Marine mission, Amerindians living in New Mexico could not vote. Like most Amerindians, he had been sent away to a boarding school so that the government could “educate” Amerindians, meaning they wanted to break the Amerindians’ strong bond to their culture.