To tie in with the summer reading theme, “Every Hero Has a Story,” at the Schuylkill Valley Community Library, Tina Mark from Lancaster County Parks was invited discuss the history of Navajo Code Talkers at an evening library program on Tuesday, June 16. True to Children’s Librarian, Kelly Jacoby’s hope that the event would be well attended due to the “good response” that she described from the community on the topic, more than 25 attendees filled the seating area at SVCL.
Mark, of Bainbridge, Lancaster County, is a part-time naturalist for the Lancaster County Parks, and travels to teach programs on the natural world, as well as Native American Indian subjects. Her programs are for all age groups and are held in parks, schools, and scouting events, as well as libraries.
The description that Mark gave of the mandatory boarding schools created for Indian children in the late 1800s had an obvious effect on her audience. Mark talked about how Indian children age six and older were “rounded up” by the United States government and sent for forced education which included the forbidden use of their Navajo language, the burning of their Indian clothing, and the cutting of their hair. She further discussed the corporal punishment and emotional abuse that the Navajo children experienced and how so many died from not only illness, but the heartache of losing everything they knew.
The United States government “had a gem in the palm of its hands” according to Mark, when through the years it accumulated a large faction of Navajo children who were fluent in English but retained their native language. She confirmed that the Navajos’ words were very guttural and complicated to learn, so it was eventually developed into a code that was never cracked.
Important terminology for warfare became the basis of the code, and Mark distributed a list of examples that the audience could review to try to figure out the Navajo code. She talked about the animal and bird words that were commonly used by the Indians that related to English words, and gave the example of “hummingbird” as the code for “fighter plane.” Codes were also created for each letter of the English alphabet in the case there were words that needed to be spelled completely.
In World War II, Mark said that the Navajo Code Talkers went through Marine Corps basic training with ease due to being accustomed to the difficult environment in their boarding schools. Additionally, the Code Talkers were tested for their proficiency in English and attended school to learn not only the codes, but the mandatory radio operation and wire transmissions with which to disseminate the information.
In 1942, Mark explained that the entire Indian population in the United States was under 350,000, but that more than 44,000 Native Americans were either drafted or enlisted in the service. She said they were always willing to fight for what was right. The Code Talkers were specifically located in the Pacific during battles with Japan and according to Mark, “they did their job and they did it well.”
The Code Talkers remained a secret of the U.S. government until after 1969. Mark stated that the original Code Talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for their service to the United States during World War II and the remaining Code Talkers received Silver Medals. Mark announced that the last Code Talker died in 2014.
For more information about Code Talkers, a memoir by one of the original Navajo Code Talkers, Chester Nez, is available at the Schuylkill Valley Community Library. Upcoming events at the library include the Wallaby Tales and Traveling Zoo on Friday, June 20 at 10 a.m. and Jaws of Life, a program about emergency responders with live demonstrations on Saturday, June 27, at 10 a.m. Contact the library at 610-926-1555 about any of their events.