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November 9, 2019

Marvin Joe Curry was a Native American, a member of the Seneca Nation’s Snipe Clan. In 1950 he left high school to enlist in the Navy, and he served two tours of duty during the Korean War. He entered the Naval Officer Candidate School in 1966 and graduated as a chief warrant officer. He was deployed to Vietnam. During his active duty in the Navy, he was aboard eight warships and saw combat in two wars. Joe was a skilled deep-sea rescue diver. He received numerous honors and retired from the Navy in 1997.

The Marvin Joe Curry Veterans Powwow is an annual event held by the Seneca tribe in honor of all United States veterans. It has been my privilege to attend numerous Native American powwows from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Sisseton, South Dakota. Without exception, the American flag and veterans of military service are honored. In the grand entry a veteran followed by other veterans carries the Stars and Stripes into the dance circle. Next weekend, November 8 and 9, 2019, Veterans Day Powwows will be held in Austin, Texas, in Richmond, Virginia, and in Clearfield, Pennsylvania.

In the fall of 1995, I met Goingback Chiltoskey in Cherokee, North Carolina. This remarkable man grew up watching his father carve wooden implements used by his family. Even before he went to school, Goingback was making his own toys.

“My dad made things that were needed around the house—spoons, handles for tools—most everything we had had to be made. I guess I just grew up with it.”

Goingback learned how to use a pocketknife from his older brother, ten years his senior. In 1917, at age ten, Chiltoskey was sent to the Cherokee Boarding School. Attending through ninth grade, Chiltoskey’s Cherokee Boarding School experience included a half of a day of academics and a half of a day of industrial training. Chiltoskey did carpentry and made repairs to the school. While he did learn some rudimentary skills in the classroom, woodcarving became the focus of his free time.

In 1927, when Chiltoskey was twenty years old, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina to attend the Parker District High School. Parker was known for its woodworking program. Chiltoskey learned other important skills that would serve him well in later life. He mastered mechanical drawing and learned to draft and read blueprints.

In 1929, Chiltoskey went to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. After returning home in 1935, he taught woodworking at Cherokee High School and continued to attend summer school at the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied carving, handicrafts, industrial arts, and sculpture. He became a master woodcarver among the Cherokee people.

In 1942, Chiltoskey left for Washington, D. C. His skill as a woodcarver placed him in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, where he made three-dimensional scale models from blueprints. Chiltoskey worked on a variety of war-related secret projects, creating terrain maps for invasions, scale models of strategic bombing targets, and a model of an atom. His service to this country was invaluable.

The culture of America’s first people included dances to prepare for battle. Many tribes practiced a war dance on the evening before an attack to observe certain religious rites to ensure success. If the battle was successful, the warriors were honored for their courage and their valor with another dance. The contemporary powwow continues the tradition of honoring warriors.

On Veterans Day soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis, Director of the United States Office of War Information during World War II, said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The following year President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory”.

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the anniversary of the armistice should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings.

This day was originally intended to honor veterans of World War I. In 1954, by act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day.

The Navajo Code Talkers are an unusual group of veterans. The twenty-nine young Navajo men who stepped into the Marine recruiter’s office one morning in 1942 were unsure what their futures would hold.

“I thought the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform,” recalled Chester Nez, in a 2004 interview. Nez wasn’t altogether wrong. He and his tribesmen would fight in battles across the Pacific and European fronts. But these courageous young men were destined for something more.

Though they have received little acknowledgment for their service, the hundreds of Navajos and other Native American tribesmen in the U.S. Military’s Code Talkers program helped pave the way for the Allied victory in World War II.

The program was developed in 1942, when Philip Johnson, a World War I veteran who had been raised on a Native American reservation, suggested to the Marine Corps to help ensure the secrecy of communications during World War II. By translating all messages into Native American languages, they could reduce the risk of interference from the enemy who were trying to crack their codes. After viewing a demonstration, Marine officers were impressed. They immediately recruited twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers, who were charged with the task of developing a military code in their native language.

Though some words in the code were direct translations from English to Navajo, other codes were more complex, using the tribal name of a type of animal to represent each letter of the alphabet. In some cases, the Native Americans would invent new words for military vocabulary that had no translation in their own languages: “When they first recruited us as Code Talkers, we had to work that out among ourselves. We didn’t have a word for tank,” said Charles Chibbity. “It has a hard shell, and it moves, and so we called it a wakaree´e, a turtle.”

The Code Talkers were key to the Allied victory in the Pacific. Risking life and limb, watching friends and comrades die, they held the fate of their country in their hands every day. Thanks to the Code Talkers, the Axis forces never cracked a single message from the Allied troops.

Despite their essential role in the war, the Code Talkers weren’t acknowledged for over a quarter of a century. They were not even permitted to tell their own families about the work they had done to protect their country.

In 1968, the military declassified the Code Talkers programs, and those who served were finally honored for their service in wartime. In 2001, the surviving veterans of the Navajo Code Talkers program were presented with Congressional Medals of Honor. On the back of the medals was an inscription in the Navajo language: “With the Navajo language they defeated the enemy.”

Though few of the Code Talkers are still alive today, those who’ve spoken about their experiences serving in World War II are proud heroes. “I was fighting for all Indian people, and all the people in the United States,” said Navajo Code Talker, Sam Tso.

At an intertribal powwow in Asheville, North Carolina, I observed with interest the many native peoples who joined in the dance. I was especially interested in a man decked out in the regalia of a Comanche dancer. He wore a ribbon shirt, eagle feathers in his hair, silver bracelets and bandoliers, buckskin leggings, and exquisite ribbon work done on trade cloth. He was a tall man with commanding presence. His right leg had been amputated at the knee. He was fitted with a prosthesis, and he walked with a cane. He sat on a bench for most of the powwow until a special dance was announced to honor veterans. He rose with dignity and danced with halting steps. He carried a small American flag in his right hand. As he passed, I noticed that pinned to his trade cloth trailer was a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. I later learned that he was a Marine Corps veteran who lost his leg in Vietnam.

Veterans Day, November 11, is an opportunity for all of us to remember with gratitude those who have served in war and in peace. Native Americans are among those to whom we are grateful.

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