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June 30, 2002

A codetalker’s view of Windtalkers

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Do not accuse MGM of taking advantage of the current war climate to market
this film. The original release date was supposed to be June 29, 2001. The
surviving codetalkers are not getting any younger, and if the general
public is going to hear about them, it is past time.

 

Do the codetalkers matter to the Dine’ people? The Dine’ are not a
generally talkative people with strangers, but between the years of 1988
and 1993, I was in Dinetah every summer and during those years:

    • an elderly woman selling jewelry at the Four Corners told my wife about
      the codetalker
    • a young man at a service station on the reservation told me about the
      codetalkers
    • a middle aged man at the tribal government center in Window Rock who we
      were asking for directions told us both about the codetalker
    • we overheard a worker at a trading post telling some European tourists
      about the codetalkers
    • the proprietor of an art gallery in Taos told us about the codetalkers

In short, if you become friendly enough with just about any Dine’ person
living in Dinetah to have a conversation about anything of import, you are
likely to hear about the codetalkers. These men are heroes to their people
but largely unknown in the country they fought to save except among war
history buffs.

Dinetah

The idea of using Native languages to communicate on open radio channels
and field telephones was not invented in the Pacific Theater of WWII.

Several tribes served in Europe as Codetalkers in WWI. Comanches and
Choctaws served in the European Theater in WWII, but it was in the island
hopping campaigns against the Japanese where the contributions of the
codetalkers were most critical.

These codetalkers were from Dinetah, Navajoland, and there are few places on
earth more unlike the tropical Pacific islands where the codetalkers wrote their
names in history.

John Woo’s film opens with the panoramic vista of Dinetah familiar to
anyone who grew up watching postwar western movies: Monument Valley. And on
James Horner’s soundtrack, would the buttes and hoodoos of that familiar
landscape be backed by
(1) the piercing call of a Native flute or
(2)schmaltzy European strings.

Give yourself a point if you guessed (2), and give Horner the benefit of a doubt that
he is saving the flute for later when it becomes associated with the character of one of the codetalkers, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie, Dine’, in his first major role).

Protecting the code

A word of warning to those likely to be offended by realistic to
over-the-top violence. John Woo cut his directorial teeth in the Hong Kong
choppy-socky mayhem-as-dance tradition, and he remains a master of screen
action.

Think of Steven Spielberg’s rendering of the Normandy beach in
“Saving Private Ryan” and then think of action of that immediacy occupying
most of a film. Aside from the question of taste, understand that if you
have a pulse it will be pounding, but there will be little contemplation of
serious issues.

Not that Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) doesn’t have serious issues.
Survivor guilt. Fear of intimacy. A physical disability he must hide to
stay in combat. An assignment that violates the fundamental bond between
U.S. Marines.

That assignment is to protect “his” codetalker, Ben Yahzee
(Adam Beach, Canadian Saulteaux, also seen in “Smoke Signals”) if possible
but if that becomes impossible “to protect the code.”

There is substantial controversy about whether this policy to kill
codetalkers in danger of capture in fact existed. The Marine Corps flatly
denies it. Codetalkers interviewed for a History Channel documentary
differed among themselves, and skepticism ranged all the way to one man who
claimed he didn’t even have a bodyguard.

When I spoke to Samuel Smith, one of the original 29 codetalkers who devised the
code, he told me that some of them were assigned bodyguards only after a codetalker
was taken POW by American forces. It seems the bodyguards were deemed necessary
to protect the codetalkers from their own troops, before some Dine’ got wasted rather
than captured.

Smith explained, without rancor, that in the island-hopping campaign there
were often no fixed lines. The Japanese often popped up from behind. Most
of the white folks who manned the frontline combat units had never seen a
fullblood Indian, and the Dine’ did, he supposed, look a bit like Japanese.

The alleged policy to kill codetalkers in danger of capture appears to be a
figment of screenwriters Joe Batteer and John Rice, but as a plot device it
accentuates the fear of bonding Joe Enders already had from being a lone
survivor of a wiped out platoon and feeds the war movie cliché of the guys
who are bonded by combat in spite of substantial differences.

Truth relevant?

Speaking of clichés. When I was in the military, everybody wanted to call
me “chief,” something Ben Yahzee has to confront. (I also noticed in
conversation with Samuel Smith that he related conversations in which white
GIs called him “chief.”)

In this film, they call Whitehorse’s name and some horse’s patoot starts making
horse noises. That kind of thing used to happen to me. This kind of treatment may be
a war movie convention, but I would bet I am not the only Indian GI who finds it very
familiar even today.

The Codetalkers Association, Smith told me, had a debate about the movie
centering on whether they should make a major push for the truth. They
decided not. They decided that the white guys wanted to make a film to make
money and they knew how to make up a story to accomplish that because they
are professionals.

The codetalkers decided that as long as the treatment of their role was respectful,
they would not squawk about historical accuracy. They understand that making up
heroic stories about people is an honoring custom in many cultures, but they would
like the truth to be told some day.

The producers of the film made a donation to Indian scholarships, Smith
told me, and I thought of the brilliant Dine’ film student at the
University of Texas, Bennie Klain, who has already been to the Sundance
Film Festival twice (“Return of Navajo Boy,” “Yada Yada”).

What kind of a story would Bennie Klain tell? What would a Dine’ filmmaker do
with the blood memory of The Long Walk and the concentration camp at Bosque
Redondo? Would he point out the irony in the treaty the Navajo had to sign that
banned them from combat forever, a treaty the Navajo asked to be abrogated
so they could fight for their homes after Pearl Harbor?

How about the Dine’ sacred history that admonishes them to live in Dinetah, the
area bordered by the four sacred mountains? One thing is certain: a Navajo telling
of this story would center on the codetalkers and their world rather than the
fictional conflicts of a white man under fictional orders.

Samuel Smith does not begrudge Hollywood its liberties with history nor
Nicholas Cage his central role in the film. Smith does strongly object to
the title, “Windtalkers,” claiming that it signifies persons who say much
of little import. He regrets that “the Navajo guy,” Roger Willie, did not
have a bigger part. But, all in all, he says the codetalkers are glad some
version of their story is out there.

Honor and one day, Truth

I would recommend that my Indian relatives see this film unless they just
have an aversion to war movies. Smith found the combat sequences that make
up much of the film to be realistic reminders of what he experienced.

He also related the outrage he and his relatives felt about the sinking of the
Arizona at Pearl Harbor with great loss of life, outrage that led him to
enlist at age 17 even though Navajos could not vote even if they were 21.

Ben Yahzee, the movie character, wants to be a history teacher if he
survives the war. Like the real codetalker I interviewed, he is
matter-of-fact about the poor treatment his people have received at the
hands of the United States.

However, he is not fool enough to believe that life under Fascism would be
better and he recognizes that white Americans, while they may not always be
the best of neighbors, are still neighbors.

A woman at the restaurant last night asked Samuel Smith whether he forgave
the Japanese. “For a long time I didn’t,” he said. “But one day I got sick
and I went to a medicine man. He told me I would just get sicker unless I
get rid of the bad feelings. He was right. Sometimes you have to fight but
then you have to forgive.”

Spoken with the wisdom of an elder. Today, we honor the codetalkers with
heroic stories. Someday, we will honor their memories with true stories.

AUTHOR: Steve Russell

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