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Know the West

Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers


When photographer Kenji Kawano left his native Japan in 1973 for the United States, he had never heard the word Navajo. Twenty-two years later, the Navajo Reservation seems like home, and many of Kawano's friends are Navajo Marines who fought against his Japanese relatives during World War II.

The Navajo Marines, known as "code talkers," helped the United States win the war by relaying military secrets in their native tongue. The gutteral Navajo language was the only code Japanese intelligence never cracked. At the time, Navajo was one of the world's hidden languages; it had no written form, no alphabet, and was spoken by only a handful of non-Navajos. It was also faster than regular code, since Navajo soldiers simply spoke to each other over a radio, then translated their conversations into English for a field commander. The men also devised Navajo names for terms not found in their language: A major general was "two star" and one type of airplane a "chicken hawk."

Kawano first heard about the code talkers in 1974, while hitchhiking on the reservation. The driver who picked him up, Carl Gorman, father of artist R.C. Gorman, had been a Navajo code talker during World War II.

The meeting was a breakthrough for Kawano, who had been working odd jobs on the reservation and sleeping under eight blankets in an unheated basement while trying to learn both English and Navajo.

Kawano started photographing the code talkers, first at official events, then while traveling with them by bus to parades or reunions, and finally at home on the reservation. In 1980, the code talkers named Kawano their official photographer and an honorary member of their association. His project lasted seven years, during which he also took pictures for the Navajo Times and the Navajo Tribe.

"It felt somewhat strange, because my father was a survivor of the Japanese program of training men to be human torpedoes during the war in the South Pacific," Kawano writes in the preface to his book, Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers. "These soldiers had been my father's enemies at one time ... I would never have expected to receive this kind of honor in America."

Kawano says all Americans should know about the code talkers. "Non-Indians tend to look for the negative side of the reservations, but these men are heroes."

Kawano now lives in Oklahoma with his Navajo wife, Ruth, a nurse, and their 13-year-old daughter, Sakura. He says they miss the reservation and plan to return home soon. "The Japanese think I am very odd," Kawano once told an Arizona Republic reporter. "Most Japanese photographers go somewhere for few months to do a project. That is normal for them."

Kawano's photographs have traveled three times to his native Japan and are still being shown throughout Arizona. For exhibit locations or information about reproductions, contact the Arizona Commission of the Arts, 417 W. Roosevelt St., Phoenix, AZ 85003 (602/229-8230).

Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, by Kenji Kawano. Northland Publishing Co., Flagstaff, Ariz. 1990, 107 pages, $19.95, paper.

Note: several photos from the book appear in the print edition of this issue.