Honoring Our Native Veterans
This permanent exhibit documents the military history of Haskell Indian Nations University. For many of the early years, Haskell was run like a military school. The students wore uniforms and were required to march everywhere. They woke to reveille and went to bed to Taps. There were several battalions of both boys and girls. The only Indian Cavalry unit in the National Guard was also based at Haskell from 1921 until 1936. In the first World War 415 Haskell students and alumni served in the United States military, and the Haskell Arch is a memorial to them. Many Haskell servicemen also served in World War II. Allan Houser, a noted Apache sculptor, created a memorial to those veterans that is displayed in Haskell Auditorium. The Haskell Cultural Center and Museum also has a commemorative medal on display that was awarded to the Code Talkers from many Native nations who helped to win that war. Another sculpture in Stidham Union, this one by Lawrence native John Learned, honors the veterans of the Korean War. This exhibit also honors the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well.
The Area directly in front of the Cultural Center is landscaped and devoted as a Tribal Veterans Memorial wall. With funds raised by the Haskell Veterans Club, commissioned pieces were made to represent the four branches of the military honoring Tribal contributions and Haskell alumni who gave their youth to this country.
Chester Nez in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Indian Country Today Media Network.)
Chester Nez: Navajo Code Talker, Distinguished Haskell Alumni ,and Honorary University of Kansas Alum
The language he once was punished for speaking in school became Chester Nez’s primary weapon in World War II, and the secret weapon which helped the Unites States win World War II. Chester’s mission was so important that he didn’t get leave his military site for three years. His mission was so secret he couldn’t talk about it until 23 years after the war ended. Proper honor for what he did wouldn’t come for another 55 years. This is in Honor of one of Indian Country’s Greatest Heroes, Chester Nez (Navajo Nation), Haskell Alumni and KU Honorary Alumni.
Nez was in 10th grade when he lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps not knowing he would become part of an elite group of Code Talkers that would forever change history as we know it today. Nez grew up speaking only Navajo in Two Wells, New Mexico. He gained English as a second language while attending boarding school, where he had his mouth washed out with soap for speaking Navajo. When a Marine recruiter came looking for young Navajos who were fluent in Navajo and English to serve in World War II, Nez said he told his roommate “Let’s try it out.”
Around 250 Navajo showed up at Fort Defiance, then a U.S. Army base. But only 29 were selected to join the first all-Native American unit of Marines. Before hundreds of men from the Navajo Nation became Code Talkers, Nez and 28 others were recruited to develop a code based on the then-unwritten Navajo language. Locked in a room for 13 weeks, they came up with an initial glossary of more than 200 terms using Navajo words. They were inducted in May 1942 and became the 382nd Platoon. Specifically tasked with developing the code to be used in the War, at a time Navajos weren’t even allowed to vote in the United States. “I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors,” Mr Nez wrote. “In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland.”
Like his fellow code talkers, Nez went to war carrying a medicine pouch with an arrowhead and corn pollen, wearing a uniform he had sent home to be blessed. He prayed daily. Those prayers took him back to his childhood home of Chichiltah, which means “among the oak trees.” In those prayers, he walked with his grandparents’ sheep. On the battlefield, he sometimes could hear the bells of the sheep and knew people at home were praying for him. “I had noticed the bells before, usually around noon,” he wrote. “Even thousands of miles from home, in conditions I could never have imagined, it was comforting, the sound of the sheep and goats coming in. Even though I had not been able to attend, my family had performed a protection ceremony for me, a Blessing Way, after basic training. I felt sure they continued to pray for me and burned sage or chips of cedar, fanning the smoke over their bodies. Their prayers were carried across the miles as the pure, bright chime of the bells. The clear tones told me that I was still in good faith.”
Despite the horrors of war, Nez was proud to serve as a Marine, and proud that his language, the tribal language which he had been forbidden to speak while in boarding school, significantly helped the United States win the war in the Pacific.
Code talkers were sworn to secrecy even after World War II ended in case the code had to be used again. And it was, in the Korean Conflict and again in the Vietnam War. “It’s one of the greatest parts of history that we used our own native language during World War II,” Nez told The Associated Press in 2009. “We’re very proud of it.”
They were, however, required to remain silent about their contributions to the war effort until 1968, when the U.S. government, having decided it had no further use for the code, officially declassified it and the Code Talkers were finally free to inform their families as to their contribution to helping win World War II for the United States. The original group of Navajo Code Talkers finally received the long overdue recognition of their service when they received the United States Congressional Gold Medals of Honor in 2001.
U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, of New Mexico, praised Nez for his bravery and service to the United States in a statement “He loved his culture and his country, and when called, he fought to protect both,” Udall said. “And because of his service, we enjoy freedoms that have stood the test of time.”
After World War II, Nez volunteered to serve two more years during the Korean War. Following his service in the military, Nez elected to attend Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas where he finally graduated with his high school diploma. He went on to attend the University of Kansas studying Fine Arts but did not graduate due to financial hardships. He went on to marry and have six children. He worked until his retirement from the Veterans Affairs Office in Albuquerque, NM. In 2012, he received an honoree bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, where he abandoned his studies in fine arts decades ago after tuition assistance he received for his military service ran out.
Mr. Charles Nez was called home to the creator June 4, 2014. The freedoms we enjoy today and his contribution to history will forever be honored and respected here at Haskell Indian Nations University.
On June 9, 2014 the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum was honored to be gifted three paintings Mr. Nez painted in the late 1940s and gifted to the family of Madison Coombs, who was then Boy’s Adviser and Director of Athletics at Haskell. They are on display at the Cultural Center so all can experience the legacy of one of Haskell’s most celebrated Alumni, Chester Nez.
The Haskell Cultural Center and Museum is a partner in the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.
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