To the end of his life, Chester Nez recalled the first message he sent over the radio while serving at Guadalcanal: “Enemy machine gun nest on your right. Destroy.”
Mr. Nez, a former United States Marine who died on Wednesday at 93, had sent the message not in English but rather in a code he had helped create. It originally went much like this:
“Anaai (Enemy) naatsosi (Japanese) beeldooh alhaa dildoni (machine gun) nishnaajigo nahdikadgo (on your right flank). Diiltaah (Destroy).”
The code was fashioned from Navajo, the language that Mr. Nez grew up speaking, was later barred from speaking and still later helped craft into a military code so impervious that it helped the United States secure victory in the Pacific in the summer of 1945.
When an elder dies in Indian country — especially someone as revered and decorated as Nez, the World War II veteran — we, Native Americans, feel it, all of us, regardless of tribe or nation.
We are also reminded that, not long ago, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Native American culture, including our languages, was considered a threat to U.S. national security. Then, the government worked in collusion with Christian institutions to stamp out Native American languages, including Navajo.
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” Capt. Richard Pratt famously read from a paper at an 1892 convention. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Pratt was the founder of the Indian boarding schools, institutions charged with turning the “red Indian” into the “noble savage.”
Chester Nez attended one of these schools as a child, and was punished when he spoke Navajo. One can’t help but think that, had it not been for the resilience of the Navajo people and their resistance to these early oppressive American policies, it’s quite possible that World War II could have ended differently.
Without the use of the Navajo language that was once discouraged by American policy, the U.S. military could have lost a distinct advantage over its enemy. Nez’s death is a reminder that America’s strength lies in its diversity. Native Americans, who have not always been included in the American story, should be remembered and honored for their contributions.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, there were between 300 and 500 unique languages spoken throughout what is now the United States and Canada. Today, there are fewer than 200, and that number will continue to decrease if North American indigenous language revitalization efforts aren’t considered paramount to the continuity of Native American communities by the United States.
Recently, a neighbor and I were discussing Native American languages. He was curious why more Native American elders “don’t just pass on the language to the next generation.”
I told him that many of said elders still suffer from the trauma they experienced in the Christian boarding school system, and remembered what Ruby Left Hand Bull told me recently.
“They’d pierce your tongue if you spoke your language!” my elder recalled. “Or they’d make you stand in front of the classroom and they’d tell you to stick your tongue out and then they’d whip it with a wooden ruler, just for speaking our language.”
Ruby knew our Lakota language growing up, she said, and very well. But she has lost it, she said. She understands it, but it’s all but left her, courtesy of the boarding schools.
I told my neighbor, who said he was a third-generation Italian-American, that his people’s language could die in New York, but there is no threat that it will become an extinct language any time soon.
“There are more Italians speaking Italian every day right across the Atlantic,” I said. “You could board a plane or hop a ship today and travel to your home country and hear your people’s language reverberating off Italian walls. We, Native Americans, don’t share in that luxury. This is it. This is our home country. Our languages are invariably on the brink of extinction, especially since we are 1% of the population. So when a Native American language dies, it’s forever gone.”
Our elders tell us that when a language dies, so, too, does the culture.
According to John JH OBrien:
FYI: It was actually illegal to speak the Lakota language until 1976.
And still yet, when the President of the United States called upon Americans everywhere to celebrate American Indian Awareness Month in November, its only invitation to celebrate in the Kansas City Missouri and Kansas City, Ks. area on November 1st. (an event held yearly) fell on deaf ears.
It seems to me that people fear diversity simply because they are accustomed to the way things used to be and change makes them uncomfortable. Others may somehow feel threatened because they perceive increased participation by traditionally underrepresented groups such as the American Indians both in the workplace, Business Community and the political process and they see this as a challenge to their own power. If left unaddressed, these fears can lead to resentment and bigotry. However, these fears can often be countered through education as well as participation in recognition promoted by some of the most respected Businesses in the Business community.
Unlike assimilation – where everyone’s differences are lost in a giant melting pot – multiculturalism advocates the idea that maintaining our different cultural identities can enrich our communities and us. Multiculturalism does not promote ethnocentrism or seek to elevate one cultural identity above another. Instead, it celebrates diversity by allowing us to value our individual heritages and beliefs while respecting those of others. Respect for each other’s cultural values and belief systems are an intrinsic part of cultural diversity. Lack of respect is often based on ignorance or misinformation. If you do not understand another’s values, lifestyle, or beliefs, it is much easier to belittle them. And so the seeds of prejudice and intolerance are sown.
Always remember this, it’s what gives me the strength to keep speaking out on this:
“When the dust settles and the pages of history are written, it will not be the angry defenders of intolerance who have made the difference. The reward will go to those who dared to step outside the safety of their privacy in order to expose and rout the prevailing prejudices.”
~Bishop John Shelby Spong