Americans are becoming painfully aware of Native American sensitivities. I know from personal experience, having got myself into a bit of hot water, Native American-wise. Here’s my story:
A few years ago, as World War II documents were being declassified, the New York Times carried an article about me, the first of the Navajo Code Talkers (that’s me, fifth from the left in the third row), recruited into the Marines to use Navajo for strategic radio communications after the Japanese cracked our codes.
The article noted I was an Anglo, born in Canada, who became fascinated with Navajo culture as a youth, taught myself the language at the Toronto Public Library, became so proficient that, at age twelve, I was admitted to Harvard, then went on to Oxford, and returned to America early in the war, where I got a hearing for my idea to use Navajo as a code language, became an American citizen, and volunteered to demonstrate my theory as the first Navajo Code Talker.
Unfortunately, the Toronto Public Library, Harvard, and Oxford denied any knowledge of me. The Pentagon declined to comment.
These revelations prompted The New York Times, with my willing assistance, to publish a lengthy Correction: that I was actually one of the Ontario-born Dionne Sextuplets; that I was spirited out of the birth hospital by provincial officials who felt I would ruin the commercial prospects of a cute, all-girl Quintet; that I was adopted by a tuba-playing California couple who had mistakenly left me in Tuba City, Arizona when, in despair at discovering that their trip to the John Philip Sousa Tuba Museum was in vain, since there was no such establishment in Tuba City, they carelessly left me behind at a filling station; and that, abandoned, I was adopted by the Rattlesnake Bite Antidote clan of the Navajo and quickly learned their language, etc., etc.
Unfortunately, the Times’ correction caught the attention of American mystery writer and Navajo expert Tony Hillerman, who held that the key element in my revised account — the Rattlesnake Bite Antidote clan — never existed and was apparently someone’s idea of a joke.
The American Tuba Society sounded their own note: There is no John Philip Sousa Tuba Museum anywhere, let alone in Tuba City, and no self-respecting tuba player would ever have thought there was.
I had no alternative but to go on the Tonight show and acknowledge that, although the Dionne account and adoption by a California couple were true, my real California adoptive parents were Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, who were fanatically publicity-shy, and whose privacy I had wanted to protect.
I told Johnny Carson that Mom and Dad often took me to the studio, and even on-location, where I met Jay Silverheels (before he became famous on TV as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto), who, to kill time between takes, taught me his native language, which I quickly mastered. The rest of the story, I insisted, was as the Times originally had it.
I guess a Pentagon official was watching because the Defense Department broke silence, saying they now understood why there had been so many problems with my wartime transmissions — for example, an urgent radio request … under attack, can’t hold out for long, need close toilet paper support and fast; a message that pleaded … non-stop rain for three days, no shelter, send us lots of four-man condoms and make sure they don’t leak; and, most damning … we’ve captured about 500 lepers, do you want us to paint their bottoms blue or bring them to hq for that?
This latter message, the Pentagon statement said, must have intended to say, … we’ve captured about 500 Japs, do you want us to hold them or bring them to hq prison? Unfortunately, but understandably, the radio operator answered … hell no, let them go at once, are you fucking crazy? This would help explain, the statement went on, why the Battle of Iwo Jima was so long and brutal.
The Pentagon statement pointed out that Jay Silverheels was an Ontario Mohawk, not an American Navajo, and concluded that I must have learned Mohawk from my fellow Canadian when I thought I was learning Navajo.
I was, and am, profoundly chagrined — Silverheels could at least have told me he was teaching me Mohawk. I was just a kid and, besides, wasn’t it natural to presume that, with all those mesas and buttes and cowboys and Indians, he was teaching me the great Native American language of the desert southwest? And why the hell did my fellow Code Talkers string me along?
But Jay and the Code Talkers are gone and there’s no point dwelling on the past. Still, I can’t help thinking I would have been better off as a Dionne Sextuplet. Anyway, as an old Marine, I’ll just sign off with Semper Fi. That’s Mohawk, or possibly Navajo, for Have a — you fill in the blank — Day!)