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  • True Whisperers: The Story of The Navajo Code Talkers
  • Suzanne Broderick
True Whisperers: The Story of The Navajo Code Talkers (2007). Produced by Valerie Red-Horse and Gale Anne Hurd. Distributed by PBS Home Video. 60 minutes

During the war, the Japanese were highly adept at breaking Allied code, resulting in devastating losses. Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary serving on the Navajo reservation, approached the United States military with the idea of creating a code based on the Navajo language, and soon, a plan for the code was conceived. True Whisperers relates the story of those Navajos who, during World War II, answered their country’s call, despite the longstanding troubled relationship between the government and the Indian nations. For the first time in generations, or perhaps, ever, the Navajo language was needed, and the Navajos, themselves, were [End Page 89] needed. The irony of this call to duty is that the young boys whose language skills would prove invaluable were enrolled in Indian boarding schools that forbid them from speaking Navajo under threat of painful physical punishment. While telling the story of these Navajo Code Talkers, the film also does much to relate the concurrent marginalization of the Navajo culture in the wider national sphere.

True Whisperers opens to a desert landscape, the ancestral home of the Navajo for thousands of years. Throughout the film, the Navajo Code Talkers speak of their connection to this land –Mother Earth—and the “sacred mountains” rising from it. Code Talker Thomas Begay describes how, as a boy, he was awakened pre-dawn to herd sheep – he was living the traditional Navajo life and “Life was good” – until the day when government officials took him from his family and placed him in a notorious culture-killing boarding school. Over still images of these now-infamous schools, the voices of other Code Talkers divulge the horrors and sadness they experienced in similar schools as what one man described as “prisoners” until their language skills were needed. In an especially effective scene, a posed group picture of these young students/prisoners dissolved into a posed picture of the 382 Platoon of US. Marine Code Talkers—in the uniforms of the country that had been attempting to eradicate Navajo culture for the previous 75 years.

The film adroitly unfolds, mixing 18th and 19th century photos, World War II stills, documentary footage, and current-day interviews with remaining Code Talkers. The now-senior Navajos relate how they were sent to basic training—an experience described as “not too bad” because, as Commanding Officer Hall observed, the Navajos were already in physical condition far superior to most new soldiers when they arrived at camp. After basic training, the young Navajos were sent to Camp Pendleton, where their top-secret work began. Here, the young Native Americans were required to construct an unbreakable code. Again the filmmakers utilize vintage photos of these unproven Marines as they work to devise their impregnable code based on their unique and ancient tongue. As we view photos of these young Marines, the voices of the now aged Code Talkers describe the code they so brilliantly conceived. Today, this once top-secret, classified code can easily be found on the internet. In interviews, Code Talkers relate how their code worked: A message was given to them in written English, which they translated into the unique Navajo code, and then safely transmitted in Morris Code. At the end of his training, a Code Talker could receive, translate and send a three-line message in a mere twenty seconds. The Code Talkers explained that they did not just memorize one code; they had to commit to memory three separate codes. After training, these young soon-to-be warriors returned home where they took part in traditional Protection Way ceremonies designed to protect them in battle. True Whisperers reenacts one of these ceremonies, as the voices of the Code Talkers relate how the elders in their communities performed songs, prayers and rituals for the young man’s safe return. Each young marine was given symbolic objects to wear on his body as a talisman.

The film stresses the...


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pp. 89-91
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