A Native American Story You’ve Probably Never Heard

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a perfect time to share a story that you won’t read in any school textbook.

You’ve likely heard about the Navajo Code Talkers, US Marines of Navajo descent who used their native tongue to baffle Japanese code breakers during World War II. Their work is credited with helping end the war years earlier than predicted. Despite their unique skills and heroic efforts, they were subject to racism and discrimination and were treated poorly to put it mildly.

Their work was top secret. Most Americans (including their fellow soldiers) didn’t realize there were native people serving in the military and didn’t know about their significant contributions to the war effort until years later.

Here’s the story you likely haven’t heard.

A chance encounter brought together a photographer and one of these Code Talkers in the mid-seventies.

The Code Talker was a man named Carl Gorman who picked up a hitchhiking photographer near Window Rock, Arizona. They became acquainted and the photographer showed interest in the culture and history of the Code Talkers.

He was invited to a Navajo Code Talkers Association meeting and was welcomed into the group. The photographer began following the Code Talkers to parades and other functions where they appeared, eventually becaming their official association photographer.

That photographer was a Japanese man whose father was a surviving Kamikaze pilot from World War II.

You read that correctly.

The Navajo Code Talkers welcomed to their tight knit community a stranger who descended from the very people they had worked so hard to defeat only a few decades earlier.

Eventually, photographer Kenji Kawano began a new project, photographing Code Talkers in their own environments – in their homes and workplaces.

Some proudly wore their uniforms. Others posed with portraits of their young selves. Some saluted for the camera, a few posed with their spouses. Kenji reached some too late – they were already deceased – so he photographed their families or their military portraits.

Some of these portraits were compiled in a book along with a quote from each man. This is how I learned the story.

I actually picked up the book “Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers” at the Crazy Horse Memorial this summer, thinking that it was just a nice book of photos to peruse on the plane. I had no idea that it would be such a moving experience to learn about the Code Talkers and the unlikely friend who would tell their story.

One of them spoke of how he was captured by U.S. Army soldiers who mistook his Navajo features as Japanese – a common problem for many of the Code Talkers.

Another spoke of how he continued to question why he had to kill and spoke of the psychological impact it had on him.

Another said that he joined up because there were no jobs on the Reservation.

The stories they tell often are only a sentence or two, sometimes a paragraph, making it an easy but significant read.

If you aren’t a reader but enjoy photography and want to know more about this topic, this book is the way to go. You’ll learn a lot and be moved. You’ll also walk away with a number of questions and perhaps even with a new world view. It certainly worked for me.

It gives me hope to think of the kindness the Code Talkers showed this young photographer. They didn’t have to invite him to their meetings or allow him to stick around for pictures. They certainly didn’t have to welcome this son of their one-time enemy into their homes.

Kenji said that it was a bit awkward at first. I imagine this is an understatement. But if this unlikely friendship could develop and flourish, there’s hope for us all. In this divided world we live in today where we have so little tolerance for people who hold different views than us, we can use all the hope we can get.

Read the book if you can. I promise you won’t regret it.