Thomas Begay, left, a World War II Navajo code talker, with his son, Ronald, a retired Army colonel, at the White House on Monday for a meeting with President Trump. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images
By SIERRA TELLER ORNELAS DEC. 2, 2017 NY Times
“I am Navajo, born into the Edgewater clan and for the Mexican clan. My maternal grandfather is Water Flowing Together clan and my paternal grandfather is Mexican clan.
Traditionally, Navajos introduce themselves by first saying their clans. It lets you know who they are. And I’ve found it’s a great way to get a non-Navajo’s attention. When I was a film programmer at the National Museum of the American Indian, my fail-safe way to quiet down an audience was to get on the mic and say my clans in Navajo. People always fell silent, daunted by the guttural sounds I was spitting out.
I’m not a fluent speaker, not even close. My clan introduction makes up about 70 percent of the Navajo words I know. But I was raised to believe that one’s language is everything. Before contact with white folks, indigenous people mostly passed knowledge down orally. Even now, it’s the best way to learn our history, our religion, our songs, our principles; it’s also the best way to get that good gossip.
When I was growing up, I’d watch my mom stand in our tiny kitchen, on the phone with her sister Rose, who still lived on our reservation. When they were really dishing, my mom would switch from English to Navajo. I’d strain to decipher even one word, then I’d pounce: “ ‘Beso’! Beso means money! Who’s having money problems? Or did someone win the lottery!? Tell me everything!” (She told me nothing.)
My father, a Latino, obviously wasn’t fluent either, but he would strong-arm my brother and me into appreciating our culture. He was like Don King, a tenacious hype man for all things Diné (the Navajo word for “Navajo”). One of his favorite examples of the tribe’s excellence were the Navajo code talkers. During World War II, Navajo men were enlisted by the Marine Corps to develop a code in order to communicate military intelligence for the South Pacific Campaign. (Other tribes also participated, but my dad didn’t hype any of those.)
The Japanese were incredibly talented at breaking codes, but the one devised by Navajo Marines, based on their language, was never broken. My dad would always point out that like many Native people, including my mother, many code talkers had been forced to attend government boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language. But it was that forbidden language that was key to the United States winning the war.
In elementary school, I wanted to do a report on them, but when my dad took me to the library to do research we couldn’t find any books that covered their achievements. This was before the internet, and I didn’t have any code talkers in my family, so my search ended there. I remember how angry my dad got, driving us back home empty-handed. Later, when I worked at the museum, I found out that the code talkers’ mission was kept classified until the 1960s. These soldiers returned home from war, with instructions to keep their triumphs a secret. Even when their work was declassified, formal recognition and bad Hollywood biopics didn’t come until decades later.
Last week, I watched our president interrupt a White House ceremony honoring the Navajo code talkers to degrade Senator Elizabeth Warren by referring to her as Pocahontas. In front of a painting of the signer of the Indian Removal Act himself, Andrew Jackson. Weeks deep into Native American Heritage month. It was like the worst game of Clue. The president disrespecting my elders, in the cellarium, with the tiki torch. I felt rage. More than usual, which is crazy, because since the election I pretty much use a steady supply of mozzarella sticks to soften my constant fury.
Since that ceremony, more than the disbelief — because of course he would do that — one thought keeps coming back to me. It is the root of my frustration: Donald Trump would make a terrible Navajo. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “We don’t know that. Forty-five might make a terrific Navajo.” Well, hear me out.
First, Navajos serve in the military. Not me, but a lot of us do. Native Americans enlist in the military at a higher per capita rate than any other racial demographic. Many of the code talkers even doctored their birth certificates so they could join early.
Navajos respect women. Precontact, my tribe was matrilineal. Women owned all the property and ran everything. Historically speaking, we were also cool with trans people and immigrants.
Navajos actually close deals. You think Donald Trump could sell a $300 hand drum to a nice woman from Minnesota whose husband is trying to drag her away? Because I did that when I was 9.
We can handle being hated. Not just by white people which, hoo boy, there’s definitely that, but also by other Natives. We’re one of the largest of the 500-plus federally recognized tribes in the United States. We’re basically Regina George from “Mean Girls.” Get a group of Natives together and I guarantee they will bond by complaining about Navajos. And we don’t care, because people with real power don’t care what others think of them.
Navajos are funnier than the president. Like legitimately funny. Because we’re biting, which is a polite way of saying we’re mean. Personally, I love Senator Warren and can’t wait for her to be president, but I or any random Navajo could have come up with better burns for her than Mr. Trump did: “Elizabeth Snorin’ ”; “Human PowerPoint”; “Government Drone.”
And this is probably a small thing, but Navajos don’t, say, direct people to meet with Russian ambassadors as a means to potentially undermine our democracy.
I just really don’t think he has what it takes, for all of those reasons, but mostly because many Navajos, the code talkers specifically, truly love this country, despite everything it’s done to try to erase us from it. And in three years who knows where the president will be, but I know those proud Marine veterans will still be representing their land and its people. They inspire us to remember that in the recesses of our discouraging past, there are still flashes of grace, dignity and bravery. I hold onto that notion every day. That, and the occasional mozzarella stick.