The generous and welcoming Puyallup people gave great honor to their name when Navajo code talker Alfred Newman, 3rd Marine Division, paid the Tribe a visit during the week of Veterans Day. With him were his wife of 69 years Betsy Newman, brother Leo Denetsone and Vicky Jarvison, executive director of the Diné Code Talkers organization, a New Mexico-based non-profit group whose mission is outreach, education and preservation of the Navajo code talkers history and legacy.
For four days this 93-year-old veteran and his family were guests of honor at numerous events and meet-and-greets on the Puyallup reservation, and they were treated like royalty as was deserving of such a man who, with his tribal brothers, put his life on the line to help defeat the Japanese in World War II. Newman and his family were constantly given many hugs and thank-you handshakes, gifts, standing ovations and pure love such that they had never before experienced in their travels around the country to educate the public on what the code talkers did for American freedom. Born in 1924, Newman went into the Marine Corps when he was 18 years old and remained in service until 1945.
“You are indeed the land of the welcoming people,” Jarvison said. “I wish I was able to bring all of (the Navajo code talkers) but they’re pretty much homebound. Alfred is the only one who’s able to fly out,” and this was likely his final trip, she added.
She said that less than a dozen Navajo code talkers remain of the original 29, ranging in age from 89 to 96. According to www.DineCodeTalkers.com, during WWII there were more than 400 code talkers from many different tribes, and the original Navajo 29 were the ones that created the actual code. It is estimated that there are less than 30 code talkers left nationwide.
Betsy Newman expressed her gratitude numerous times during their stay with the Puyallups. “We’re so happy and thankful that we have come to your city. Everyone is so friendly and smiley.” She repeated this with deep sincerity at all of their appearances.
A big reason why Albert Newman was invited to visit was to help impress on the Puyallup tribal membership, particularly the children, the importance of the Tribe’s indigenous language. The Puyallups have been making a concerted effort to revitalize their language over recent years with much success, and Newman’s legacy being focused on the Navajo language helping to win World War II showed that tribal language and culture cannot be left to die, as language is at the heart of cultures worldwide.
Another key reason for their trip was to help raise awareness and funds for a Navajo code talkers museum that the Diné Code Talkers organization is working to get established in old town Albuquerque – a popular tourist spot that would help reach a lot of people in close proximity to the Navajo reservation.
“We’re working toward keeping their legacy alive for the future when they’re no longer here with us, to reach out and educate the public,” Jarvison said. “There are so many people out there who don’t know what a Navajo code talker is, never knew who they are or what they did, especially among the younger generation because there’s very little said about them in history books.”
The Puyallup Tribe has made contributions to the museum effort, and plans to continue offering its support in the hopes that other tribes will step up and do the same.
“You are the only tribe that has offered this,” Jarvison said. “Even our own Navajo Nation, and it’s so sad, but we’ve asked for funding and they won’t help us.”
Those who wish to contribute can e-mail Vicky Jarvison at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out at www.Facebook.com/DineCodeTalkers.
“It’s been difficult for them because they have to raise their own funds to keep this alive,” she said. “It’s very sad how the United States government won’t build them a museum after what they did, and the Marine Corps won’t give them any kind of funding. The public has been so great in giving donations to keep going. They just want a small museum to be remembered. At 93 years of age, some 96 and 94, they’re doing the best they can to raise the money but we’ve been losing them.”
A LOADED AGENDA
Their week started off as honored visitors at a Puyallup Tribal Council meeting where they met councilmembers including Vice Chairman Larry LaPointe, who is also a veteran of the Marine Corps. As guests of Councilmember Jim Rideout, he escorted Newman, Betsy, Leo and Jarvison everywhere they went and stayed attentive to anything Mr. Newman needed as he was being driven around to his appearances. It was Rideout who extended the invitation to Newman this past summer at the National Gathering of American Indian Veterans in Chicago, which he attended with Puyallup Tribal veterans who were also of a mind that Newman should visit the Tribe.
“It’s an honor to have you here, especially near Veterans Day,” Councilmember Rideout said in Council chambers. “I felt love and kindness from you, Alfred, when I first met you and I felt compassion for you and your legacy – what you want to leave behind for your tribe and your community. I can’t thank you enough. This is an historic Veterans Day week that we’ll never forget.”
The Councilmembers and other tribal members sang the visitors a Warrior Song written by Tecumseh Saluskin, a former student at Chief Leschi, and gifted them with the Puyallup Tribe’s signature blanket designed by Puyallup artist Shaun Qwalsius Peterson titled “The First Fisherman.”
“This is a hug from our community, to keep you warm when it gets cold back home,” as Councilmember David Bean explained it.
Councilmembers even got to meet the code talkers’ mascot Amber, who came along on the trip. “The Marine Corps has their bulldog mascot and the code talkers have a chihuahua,” Jarvison laughed.
Later that week the travelers were invited to a morning breakfast gathering at the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority (PTHA) where a standing room-only crowd listened to Newman speak, then purchased books about the code talkers. There, the travelers received more gifts from the Health Authority and everyone stood in applause more than once for this great man.
A dinner that same evening at the tribe’s Little Wild Wolves Youth and Community Center gave even more tribal community members a chance to meet Newman and share a meal. There, Councilmember Rideout presented Newman with a check for $5,000 to help in the work of the Diné Code Talkers organization.
Their visit culminated in Newman being honored at Chief Leschi Schools’ annual veterans appreciation assembly along with Puyallup tribal veterans and those of other tribes who served our country.
A LEGACY TO PRESERVE
During her visit to Tribal Council, Betsy Newman – “Mrs. Code Talker” as she referred to herself – spoke of the code talkers’ hidden history and how that needs to change.
“There aren’t that many (code talkers) left on the reservation but they’re there,” she said. “Nobody is noticing them. Now is the time to notice them, to do something for them. You treat your heroes the best you know how because they fought for you, they suffered for you.”
Former Puyallup Tribal Council member Nancy Shippentower addressed this as well. “Nobody talks about it and it should be something that the United States should be thankful forever for the Navajo Nation and how their language saved that World War. If it wasn’t for you, we probably would have lost the war so I raise my hands to you.”
While the 2002 Hollywood film “Windtalkers” did a lot to shed some light on these men, their true legacy and lives continue to be relatively unknown among the general population. Jarvison and those working with the Diné Code Talkers organization are out to change this with their plans to establish the museum.
While World War II ended in 1945, it wasn’t until 1968 that the U.S. government declassified information on the code talkers, and unfortunately it pretty much got lost among all that was happening during that busy era of civil rights movements and the Vietnam War. People missed the opportunity to learn about and truly appreciate these brave men and how the Navajo language was used as code by U.S. military forces to outsmart the Japanese. For example, Newman told of how the Navajo word for “turtle” meant tank, and “whale” meant battleship. Navajo recruits had to go to Code Talkers School to learn the code and memorize it.
In a painful irony, Newman and Native boys and girls like himself were forbidden from speaking their language in boarding schools but as it turned out it was that very language that did so much for our country that we’re enjoying the benefits of to this very day.
As Newman explained, “If they wanted fighter planes they’d call for hummingbirds. We had to learn it all by heart. We couldn’t carry books or anything like that. We had to carry it all up here,” he said, pointing to his head.
“We used our language to help win the war, to confuse the enemy. And we went through all the hardships that the other infantrymen went through,” starting with boot camp like every other Marine.
Newman was stationed in the South Pacific for three years as part of the efforts to take back islands from the Japanese. He and his comrades were right in the thick of things at the front lines of battle, taking cover for weeks in shallow foxholes with snakes and mosquitos everywhere. Sleep was another rare gift, as the code talkers had to keep alert especially on moonlit nights when they could be spotted. He remembers Iwo Jima in particular, and how an inactive volcano on the island provided the Japanese with a bird’s eye view of the jungles below.
“They had a good view right where we were,” he said. “We had to dig a foxhole just big enough to lay down. That was our cover. We couldn’t sit up or stand up because the Japanese had a good position to fire on our troops. There were no trees or rocks to hide behind either and they often couldn’t get food to us. We wouldn’t eat for days.
“I knew how the prairie dog must feel when he sticks his head out his hole and gets shot at.”
Newman told of coming across the dead bodies of Japanese soldiers in the hot and humid jungles, those who chose to kill themselves rather than face disgrace back home over losing the war. He said Japanese women would jump off the volcano’s cliffs to avoid capture after hearing false rumors of how they would be tortured by the Americans.
“The Japanese had the advantage, but we didn’t get captured or killed. I was glad to get off that island,” he said.
This was how the war was fought in the South Pacific, by allied forces taking back islands one by one. The code talkers were critical in several important campaigns, and they are credited with saving thousands of American and allies’ lives.
“When I traveled my first trip as a Tribal Council member, I thought of my people,” Councilmember Rideout said. “When I’ve stressed about revitalizing our culture and language, I really meant it. When I met Mr. Newman I fell in love with him. He reminded me of my relatives at home and I thought about supporting him. I was appalled about how he wasn’t being supported as a World War II veteran, how the government is not acknowledging him for their efforts in World War II.
“I’m very appreciative of Alfred Newman. We are blessed to have him in our presence. These guys will have a special place in our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives. When I met him I found a brother.”