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One of the Last Navajo Code Talkers Shares Their Stories – Part II

by Yonca Poyraz-Dogan, Navy Office of Information | 09 November 2021

by Yonca Poyraz-Dogan, Navy Office of Information | 09 November 2021

In the last part of our interview, Peter MacDonald Sr., one of the four surviving Navajo Code Talkers, talks about efforts to pass the legacy of the Code Talkers to young generations. Also hear his views on diversity and inclusion (Part I here).

How many Navajos can speak the Navajo language?
I would guess more than 70% of the Navajo population speaks the Navajo language today. I like to urge the Navajo people to keep the language as the basis of our culture and heritage. It's not how we dress that makes us Navajos, it's the language and our hearts that really make us Navajos.

I read about your efforts to build a Navajo Code Talkers Museum. How is it going?
The four of us remaining Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, and several other Navajos and friends are busy working on a National Navajo Code Talkers Museum on the Navajo reservation. We have the land and we need help with funds to build the structure. We want this museum to tell a story of how our national diversity is so important to keeping our freedom, our liberty and the peace we enjoy here in America.

What are a few Navajo codes that you’d like the young generations to never forget?
We developed over 600 Navajo Code words and used it so successfully that it remained top secret till 1968. Twenty-three years after the war ended, we were told that our code was declassified and to go ahead and tell the world what we did. We were told the Navajo Code saved hundreds of thousands of lives and helped win the war in the Pacific. 
Major Conner [Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer at Iwo Jima], in his report to his superiors during the battle of Iwo Jima said, "...without Navajo, Marines would never have taken the Island of Iwo Jima." What Navajo Code word do I want our Navajo young people to never forget? "Ni hi ma" which means “our mother,” the code word for "America.”

On the occasion of Native American Heritage Month in November, what is your message for diversity and inclusion, especially at this time of social rethinking and reevaluating of unresolved issues of the past?
I’d like to thank America for recognizing all that Native Americans did to save our freedom, liberty and peace. When we respect and honor our diversity in America, we are strong and invincible; we cannot be defeated, and our freedom, liberty and peace remain strong. Honors must be given to all tribes for their patriotism; many used their language in WWI and WWII. We thank Congress, presidents of the United States and states for honoring us. Much work still needs to be done to have the original land owners catch up to today's standard of living.

Did you face discrimination before or after you joined the service? 
I never did face serious discrimination in military or within America. When I was growing up, I was told that I was a "dumb and stupid Indian." I never took it seriously. When I joined Marines at boot camp, I was approached by a fellow Anglo Marine to read him a letter from home; then he asked me to answer the letter for him. I was very, very surprised that he asked me to do this for him. I thought he was testing me to see if I know how to read and write. I obliged and read to him and answered his letter. I then asked him why he asked me to do this. He said he only finished second grade. This completely changed my mind on white people. 

When going to school, I always thought white people were next to God because they knew everything we were forced to learn in school, including their language. Now, I discovered that white people are dumb, too. Some don't know how to read and write, so they are just as "dumb" as I am. I no longer felt intimidated by them. For that one moment, I was smarter than one good looking young white boy. I felt proud inside my heart and no longer thought of them as being close to God. That feeling of being equal carried me through university and a good job with Howard Hughes. If a sheepherder or a farmer or a non-English speaking person can get an engineering degree or law degree, there is no such thing as a superior race. We are all given the same amount of brain and how we use that brain makes us different, not our color or our nationality. There are reasons why God made us different in size, color, and language just as there are different animals and species. Snakes are not superior to elephants, nor deer superior to horned toads. Racism should have no place in our society.

As the Navajo Code remained top secret for years, what did you tell people if they asked you about what you did in the war? 
The Navajo Code remained top secret for 23 years, it was not declassified until 1968. We were told upon being discharged not to tell anyone what we did until the code was declassified. If anyone asked us what we did in war, we were to say, "I was a radioman" that's all, nothing more. Most of us decided just to forget about WWII and help improve our people's economic and social status. Some went back to livestock economy, some went on to school and finish their education using GI Bill. Last, but not least, we love this great country of ours and willing to defend our land, our freedom, our liberty and our peaceful existence. It requires all of us working together to maintain peace, freedom and liberty that we all love. “Hagoonee' hozho na hasdlii” or be well until I see you again, in beauty it’s finished.
At the conclusion of our interview, we extend our thanks to MacDonald in Navajo language: Ahéhee'!

After the war, MacDonald went back to his home community of Teecnospos, Arizona. Then he continued with his education and graduated with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma. He also pursued graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

He has a long list of entrepreneurial endeavors attached to his name. 

He is married, has five children and nine grandchildren. He lives on the Navajo reservation at Tuba City, Arizona. 

Staying active, he continues to inspire people with lectures at schools, clubs, political organizations, government agencies and businesses.

Find Part I of our interview here.

Hear from the Navajo Code Talkers Thomas Begay and Peter MacDonald Sr. on this video: 

Naval History and Heritage Command has more on the Navajo Code Talkers: Navajo Code Talkers, World War II Fact Sheet and Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary


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