The Native American Code Talkers are among my father’s heroes. When he explained to me their amazing efforts to help win World War II, they became my heroes as well.
So it was heartening to hear that the few surviving veterans who provided this unique service were going to be honored at a White House ceremony last week. It’s important to recognize these men while they are still with us, and it’s particularly special for their families to see them receive the attention they deserve.
For those unfamiliar with their story, it’s one that should be taught in all schools. In 1942 the Marines shipped 29 recruits between the ages of 17 and 32 from their reservation in the desert southwest to San Diego for training. Since the Navajo language had no written alphabet or documentation, the Marines decided it was perfect for sending coded messages the enemy would be unable to decipher.
More than 400 code talkers, including those from several different tribes, were deployed during the war. The code, based on the Navajo language, was never deciphered.
Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock at the Battle of Iwo Jima. They reportedly sent more than 800 messages, all without error. “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” Connor has said.
Americans didn’t learn about the contribution the code talkers made during the war until 1968, when their mission was finally declassified by the Marines.
On Monday, Nov. 27, three code talkers were at the White House to be honored at a ceremony by President Donald Trump.
Despite his frequent claims that “the military love me,” the commander-in-chief has an uneasy relationship with those who’ve served. Many veterans resent his draft dodging — he used student deferments, and later claims of a bone spur following graduation, to avoid Vietnam. His all to frequent derogatory remarks about the American heroes who did serve and sacrifice hasn’t boosted his popularity, either.
On the campaign trail Trump said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) was not a war hero even though the pilot was shot down, captured, imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese for more than five years. “I like people who weren’t captured,” he said. It was a moment that should have ended his presidential campaign right then. Of course, it didn’t. Nor did the insults he hurled at the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in action in Iraq.
So it should be no surprise that Trump was unable to focus his egotistical mind on honoring the code talkers and instead used the occasion to insult Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), derisively referring to her as “Pocahontas.”
Even though Pocahontas was a real-life legend credited in some stories with saving the life of Capt. John Smith, Trump has used her name as a racial slur. Warren claimed several years ago that she is part Native American, relying on her family’s oral history, but providing no other substantiation.
Trump clasped his hand on the shoulder of former Navajo chairman and trained code talker Peter MacDonald. “You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said, making the remark in the same tone of awe that he uses whenever an aide whispers to him an obvious fact that he’s never heard.
Then he added, “We have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas. But you know what, I like you.”
No one but Trump calls Warren Pocahontas because no one else is such a dolt to keep making the same childish claim about a U.S. senator who honors her country with her public service.
Instead of using the event as a way to educate Americans about the amazing contribution the code talkers made during World War II, Trump used it as a means to deliver another cheap shot at a rival. He even managed to do it in a way that insulted the people he was meant to be honoring. (And that’s just the misuse of “Pocahontas.” Don’t get me started on the tacit insult of holding the ceremony in front of a giant portrait of Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson.)
This was truly a teachable moment, but the only thing Trump taught anyone is that his flawed character prevents him from doing anything that isn’t in his own interest.
For the record, Republicans criticized Warren during her 2012 Senate contest against Scott Brown because she listed her Native American heritage on forms when she was teaching at two universities. A law school association put her on its list of “minority law teachers.”
Warren explained that her parents told her and two brothers that their family had Native American ancestors. She explained that she never sought to prove her ancestry because she didn’t think it was necessary — and it wasn’t. Brown just used the fake controversy to divert attention from the fact that compared to Warren he was imminently unqualified to be a senator. The voters didn’t care and swept her into office.
Even though I am outraged that Trump disrespected my Native American heroes and one of my favorite senators at the same time, I still find amusement in the fact that it was the same week the president repeated his infamously bogus claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., said the voice on the “Access Hollywood” tape where he discussed his favorite way to sexually assault women wasn’t his, and retweeted three fake, inflammatory anti-Muslim videos that originated with a racist British group.
And that was only through Wednesday. He will undoubtedly have more insults and lies, but for all he’s done he’s earned his own Native American nickname: Chief Foot-in-Mouth. Or maybe Lies-a-Lot. I can think of others, but not for a family audience.