Humble Pride

Jimmy MagahernSeptember 1, 2014
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More than a decade after America honored its Navajo code talkers, Arizona’s Hopi code talkers are finally getting their due. But would they have wanted it?

Delores Yaiva never knew her father had been a code talker in World War II. Not until about six years ago, when she saw him featured in a documentary by an Arizona filmmaker that premiered at the Hopi Health Care Center in Polacca.

“He never talked about it,” says Yaiva, 60, whose father, Travis S. Yaiva, was one of 10 Hopi code talkers honored, all posthumously, with Congressional Gold Medals last November at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Yaiva and her family attended on behalf of her father, who was, as it turned out, the last surviving Hopi code talker when he passed away in April 2010 at age 89.

“Even after I saw the video and questioned him about it, he wouldn’t tell me a lot about the experience,” Yaiva says. “He’d just say, ‘It’s not good to talk about it.’”

The U.S. military began using Native American soldiers to transmit secret tactical messages in their native tongues as early as 1918, when groups of Cherokee and Choctaw troops were deployed to relay coded battle plans in World War I. During WWII, more than 400 Navajo soldiers and 151 Hopis were recruited by the Marines to develop a formal code that would help them win the Battle of Iwo Jima, among other military campaigns.

The Navajo contribution to the war effort is well-known, thanks to the John Woo-directed film Windtalkers and lavish media attention. Meanwhile, Hopi heroism in World War II has enjoyed little press, partly because the code talker program was kept secret until 1968. Even after that, few Native vets felt compelled to talk about their service as code talkers – especially Hopis, who are taught not to boast of war victories.

“They were told, number one, that they weren’t supposed to talk about it,” says Darren Vicenti, a grandson of Travis Yaiva who now works as a doctor for the federal Indian Health Service. “They were given instructions from the military upon their discharge that they weren’t supposed to discuss their code or share information about the missions. And my grandfather, in all honesty, took that to heart. As his grandchildren, we knew that he was a veteran, and he acknowledged that as part of his history. But he never bragged about it. He never sat us on his knee and told us war stories. So we had no idea that he was a code talker.”

Hanna Polewytewa, Eugene “Geno” Talas, Tara Torivio
(left to right) Hanna Polewytewa, Eugene “Geno” Talas and Tara Torivio

VaNiesha Honani never even got to meet the code talker in her family, her great-grandfather Perry Honani Sr., from Shungopavi Village, Ariz. As with many of the Hopis drafted during WWII, Honani believes her great-grandfather came back feeling ashamed for being involved in operations that took human lives, albeit the enemy’s. “We’re farmers,” she says. “Joining the military is going against our traditional values, which are about protecting all life forms, not killing.” Tragically, Perry Sr. took his own life just a couple of years after returning from the war.

Perhaps ironically, Honani wound up serving in the Navy herself, sailing through the same waters in the Southeast Asia Pacific that the Hopi code talkers traversed as members of the Army 81st Infantry “Wildcat” Division. Her grandfather, Perry Honani Jr., also served in the Navy (and battled alcoholism upon his return), and VaNiesha, who now lives in Los Angeles, felt that by following in both of their footsteps, she was fulfilling a complicated but important legacy.

“For me, I think I wanted to understand what they went through,” she says. “When I was in D.C. for the medals presentation, my aunt Rosa was talking about how my great-grandfather must have suffered, dealing with all those experiences that she didn’t understand – but I did. I think I wanted to prove that Hopis could serve and then come back to our traditional values, and move forward.”

Eugene “Geno” Talas works as director of Hopi Veterans Services in Second Mesa, on the Hopi Reservation, and says he often deals with veterans who still struggle with the conflicts of having honorably served their country while, in effect, dishonoring the covenants of their own Native American nation.

“From the Hopi’s perspective, war is not good,” Talas says. “We consider ourselves more defenders and protectors than warriors. When our Hopi veterans return from the war, they burn their uniforms and everything having to do with military service, as a purification rite to kind of take away all of the bad things they saw or did. They take pride in having helped. But it’s a humble pride.”

That humility was tested when the original 29 Navajo code talkers were awarded their Congressional Gold Medals in 2000 and Hollywood celebrated their heroics. At times, all the national attention showered on the Navajos became an annoyance to other tribes.

“Not to sound mean, but I think they brag,” says Yaiva, who adds that Navajos have always exerted a little superiority because they belong to a bigger tribe. “Why was everyone recognizing them more when they weren’t the only ones who were code talkers?”

code talkers, arizona state capital
code talkers’ families at the Arizona State Capitol in January 2011

Finally, after a statue honoring the Navajo code talkers was erected outside the Arizona State Capitol in 2008, there were protests from other tribes, and increased efforts to discover who among their elders served as code talkers, too. Since the Hopi vets hadn’t talked about it themselves, unearthing the code talkers among them required some detective work.

“I actually flew to D.C. on my own and looked up the documents on Hopi veterans in the National Archives,” Honani says. “It was a little like putting a puzzle together, because obviously none of the papers were going to just say ‘designated code talker.’ So I had to do some decoding myself.” Talas – who was also instrumental in pushing for an annual Hopi code talker recognition day in Arizona (now held on April 23) and worked with the U.S. Mint to design the gold medals – pored through military communication matrices to determine which Hopi soldiers had been relaying codes, then validated his findings with the U.S. Army Center of Military Studies.

Whether the late Hopi code talkers themselves would have welcomed the belated praise is debatable. Patty Talahongva, the Hopi journalist whose documentary The Power of Words: Native Languages as Weapons of War effectively outed Travis Yaiva and one other Hopi, Franklin Shupla, as code talkers, believes the veterans may have finally been ready to take a bow.

“I think the men all just decided it was time to talk,” she says of the 10 she interviewed, which also included six Navajos, one Comanche and one Meskwaki. “Funny, but they all kinda knew about each other,” she adds, relating the story of one Navajo Marine who got on the radio one day to receive a code and recognized the language on the other end as Hopi.

Spreading America’s code talker love to the Hopis has already brought the tribe some long-overdue respect: witness the buy-back last December of 24 sacred Hopi artifacts that had been put up for Paris auction by collectors. The charitable Annenberg Foundation spent more than $530,000 to win back all but three of the artifacts (not including, unfortunately, the Crow Mother, one of the most sacred) and returned them to the tribe.

“Telling the story about the Hopi code talkers gets the rest of the country thinking, ‘Hey, these are the people these artifacts belong to. They’ve contributed to this country,’” Honani says. “Now we’re receiving more respect, and can actually advocate for ourselves.”

Most importantly, a new generation of Hopis are reaping that respect.

“My children – my grandfather’s great-grandchildren – really do have a sense of pride that their great-grandfather was really part of something big,” Vicenti says. “And through it all, he always remained humble. As an example for our younger generation, he showed you don’t have to be someone amazing. You can just be somebody who helps out to the best of your ability, and still be an amazing contributor.


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