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Descendants of Navajo Code Talkers keep legacy of ancestors alive on holiday

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Standing in front of a 16-foot tall bronze statue of a Navajo Code Talker at Wesley Bolin Plaza, Shannon Begay began Monday’s observance with a popular Diné prayer.

“In beauty, I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me,” said Begay. “I walk with beauty above me. I walk with beauty around me. I walk, it has become beauty again.”

She’s the eldest granddaughter of Thomas Begay, one of only three Navajo Code Talkers still alive today. 

“When I look at my grandpa, and the perseverance, and the ambition and the resilience that he has, it makes me want to keep going forward and know that there’s no barriers or boundaries," she added.

Thomas couldn’t attend the city of Phoenix’s celebration of Navajo Code Talkers Day this year — at 98-years-old, his health makes it difficult to travel from his home in New Mexico. But his service contributions, and those of his brothers in arms, were celebrated not just in Phoenix, but in ceremonies across the state of Arizona, from Flagstaff to the Navajo Capital of Window Rock.

For Shannon, that means sharing her grandfather’s life story. Born from humble beginnings into a family of sheep herders at a traditional hogan dwelling near Two Wells, New Mexico in 1927, Thomas would eventually enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 16. 

Using their Navajo language, Thomas and his young cohorts, often referred to as the “First Twenty-Nine,” devised an unbreakable code, which would be taught to some 400 Navajos. 

“These young men that went to these schools were not allowed to speak their own language and were punished for that,” said Laura Tohe. “And yet, they enlisted and they were asked to come up with this code.” 

Tohe, a former Navajo Nation poet laureate and descendant of Navajo Code Talker Benson Tohe, interviewed twenty of her father’s combat buddies for “ Code Talkers Stories,” an essay-style book she authored and published more than a decade ago. “I think one of the things that I took from my research is how precious a language is, and how it was used to help save America,” Tohe added. 

Zonnie Gorman is an academic authority on the Navajo Code Talkers history and daughter of Dr. Carl Gorman, another one of the original twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers. She said respect and recognition for the code took time — even when the top-secret and classified program was being developed in the Marine Corps. 

“There’s actually one document where a commanding officer said he didn’t have any faith in this ‘Indian gibberish,'” said Gorman. 

That same ‘Indian gibberish’ actually ended up helping the U.S. and its Allies defeat the Axis powers in critical battles like Iwo Jima where Begay had been deployed with the Signal Company of the 5th Marine Division. It was their code, used to transmit encrypted messages, that secured victory during the Second World War.

And eventually, respect within the Marines was earned. “They gave the Navajo Code Talkers their own [military occupational specialty] number, which is significant, because they recognized the value of the training that these men were given as a speciality,” Gorman added.

For descendants, like Gorman and Tohe, Shannon Begay understands the role and responsibility she must play in preserving her grandfather’s story, and those of his fallen comrades.

“It’s important for me as a descendant to carry on my grandfather’s legacy,” said Begay. 

Although her grandfather wasn’t present in Phoenix on Monday, Thomas Begay is still alive and well enough to share his own message with the world on social media: “Today is a Navajo National Code Talkers Day. Honor them and salute them. Semper fi.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.