So there we were again Monday when what should have been an easily honorable moment at the White House became uneasy. Three World War II Navajo Code Talkers – Peter MacDonald, Fleming Begaye and Thomas Begay – had gone to the Oval Office to be honored and to be heard on their quest to have a national Navajo Code Talker Museum built.
But you likely didn’t know why they were there, because President Donald Trump apparently decided that a moment honoring Native Americans should also be a moment to denigrate a U.S. senator by using the name of a historic and honorable Native American figure as a racial slur.
“You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas,” he said, dropping his oft-repeated nickname for foe Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who he’s never let his supporters forget described herself as being part Cherokee based on what her family has always told her.
Whether you like Trump or loathe him, it was hard not to wince at this stunning lack of ethnic, historical and respectful couth.
If that wasn’t cringe-worthy enough, the ceremony took place under the stony glare of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the president who earned the nickname Indian Killer because of his desire to exterminate Native Americans – “savages,” he called them – to make way for white pioneers. His signature legislation was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced tens of thousands of Native Americans off their lands and led to the infamous “Trail of Tears,” in which thousands succumbed during the brutal relocation efforts.
Oh, it was all so disdainful, disrespectful and offensive. And even if you don’t believe it was racist, surely you can agree that it was graceless.
I suspect that by the time this column is published we will have careered off to the next distraction to excoriate and examine. But let’s stop for a moment to consider that one of the most lamentable aspects of Monday’s events was not what was said but what was not heard by the majority of Americans.
That was the eloquent speech given by MacDonald, the president of the 13 surviving Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.
MacDonald, who at 91 was the youngest of the three, spoke about how he was 15 when he joined the Marines and was recruited into a top-secret group of young Navajos who used a voice transmission code based on their Native language that was faster than Morse code and unbreakable by the enemy.
That group, the existence of which was not declassified until 1968 after many of the original members had passed away, was the Navajo Code Talkers.
“In every battle – from the front line, beach command post, command ship, all other ships – Code Talkers were used,” MacDonald said in his 11-minute speech. “On the island of Iwo (Jima), Maj. (Howard) Connor said, the first 48 hours of battle, over 800 messages were sent by the 5th Marine Division, only. The first 48 hours, over 800 messages. Maj. Connor also said, ‘Without Navajo, Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima.’ ”
That’s what we should have remembered from Monday’s visit to the White House.
So let us use this as a teachable moment. I urge you to read the transcript of MacDonald’s speech and watch the video. I urge you to take the opportunity to learn more about the heroic Code Talkers, about Jackson, about Pocahontas.
And I urge you in these crazy, disheartening times to keep front of mind MacDonald’s final words:
“America, we know, is composed of diverse community. We have different languages, different skills, different talents and different religion. But when our way of life is threatened, like the freedom and liberty that we all cherish, we come together as one. And when we come together as one, we are invincible.”
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.