Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Lesson in Peacemaking

In 1942 the Allied forces in the Pacific led by the American military were poised and ready to strike to regain control of the South Pacific islands now under Japanese control. There was one problem. Every code developed by the American army designed to protect communications about troop movements, etc., had been broken by the Japanese. History books are full of the story of the Navajo Code Talkers and how the use of their ancient language by "code talkers" stymied the Japanese and led the way for the eventual reclamation of those islands under the control of the Japanese Empire in 1941. In fact, Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division's Signal Officers' Corps stated, "were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima. Were it not for the decision of the United States government to restore sovereignty to the Navajo Nation to their lands taken by the United States in 1864, the outcome in World War II's Pacific Theater might have been entirely different.

Americans started pushing into Apache and Navajo lands after the United States defeated New Mexico in the Mexican-American War. In the 1850's more and more lands inhabited by the Mescalero Apache and Navajo for centuries were being taken by the United States military for forts and American settlers moving west to make their fortunes. Problems escalated as the Navajo and Apache took up arms to fight to maintain control of their traditions and culture. A cycle of raids and counter-raids began when the moderately pro-Navajo U.S. Army leader and Indian agent was replaced in the latter part of that decade. A peace treaty was signed with the Navajo represented by Chief Manuelito on April 30, 1860 to bring an end to the hostilities. A dispute over a horse race on February 15, 1861 led to the massacre of 30 Native Americans violating the terms of the Treaty.

After the massacre the American military leaders set plans in motion to remove the Navajo from their homelands in northeast Arizona, western New Mexico, Utah and Colorado and relocate them to a 40 mile square tract of land called Bosque Redondo in a barren area of northwestern New Mexico on the Pecos River. This was to be the first Indian Reservation west of the Oklahoma Indian territory. Plans were to turn the Apache and Navajo into farmers and "civilize" them by sending them to school and making them Christians.

U.S. army leader Kit Carson made war on the Navajo in order to accomplish the plan. He ordered U.S. soldiers to march onto Navajo property and destroy their fields, orchards, houses and livestock. Those Navajo who survived the attacks were starved into submission and in January 1864 they surrendered at Canyon de Chelly. Carson promptly organized what became known as the Long Walk. Eight thousand five-hundred men, women and children marched 300 miles in the dead of winter from their lands in Arizona and New Mexico to Bosque Redondo. Two hundred people died of cold and starvation on the walk. More died after reaching what was no more than a prison camp where the Mescalero Apache were already interred.

There was constant fighting between the Apache and Navajo who were natural enemies. In addition, the brackish water led to intestinal problems and rampant disease. As more and more Navajo died, escaped or killed each other, the United States finally deemed this attempt a failure and negotiated the Treaty of 1868 that acknowledged Navajo sovereignty and returned the land on the Arizona/New Mexico border to the Navajo who returned in rags to rebuild their homelands on the rations and sheep given to them by the United States. (Legends of America at )
They prospered and rebuilt their culture, maintaining their religion, economy and language. If the United States government had succeeded in "killing the Indian but not the man" on the Bosque Redondo Reservation in the 1860's, there would have been no thriving Navajo Nation 50,000 strong to offer 500 of its sons, brothers and fathers in service to the American military in 1942. Of the 500 Navajo men who served the United States military in World War II, 375 to 420 served in the capacity of Code Talkers at one time or another. Without their service, the campaign in the Pacific to restore sovereignty of land to the people of the South Pacific islands from the grips of the Japanese war machine might have had a different outcome or at least been even more costly in terms of human life. These Code Talkers deserve all the honors and medals bestowed upon them. In addition, the Navajo Nation deserves our nation's gratitude for honoring a 19th Century Peace Treaty in order to rebuild their culture and way of life.
Navajo Code Talkers: WW II Fact Sheet
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