The buttes and hoodoos of Dinetah are familiar to anyone who grew up watching John Ford westerns, in which Monument Valley stood in for any number of locations in the Wild West. That spectacular landscape opens John Woo’s film, while James Horner’s stolid European soundtrack offers the first clue that Windtalkers may not in fact center on the Dineh (Navajo) people or their land. Horner does offer a Native flute later, when it becomes associated with the character of one of the code talkers, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie, Navajo).
Casting Roger Willie did not make Windtalkers a Navajo film, and the Native American Journalists Association noted, “In 1999, Navajos were already knocking the movie.” The same report indicated the status of indigenous languages remains precarious today: “One of the most important, and least reported, stories of Native America is the efforts of tribal elders and linguists to save the remaining 175 tribal languages, many of them near extinction.”
Windtalkers might have been a practical lesson in the value of cultural preservation. Instead, it focused on the personal torment of Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) over the alleged policy to kill code talkers in danger of capture. Enders’ difficulties included: survivor guilt from being the only person to return from his previous assignment; fear of intimacy that reduced the only female character in the film (Frances O’Connor as Rita, a nurse who might have been Enders’ love interest if he had one) to a foil for his rejections; and a physical disability he must hide to stay in combat.
Most difficult of all is an assignment that violates the fundamental bond of honor among United States Marines. That assignment is to protect “his” code talker, Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach, Canadian Saulteaux), if possible, but if that becomes impossible, then his assignment is “to protect the code.”
There is substantial controversy about whether this policy to kill code talkers in danger of capture in fact existed. The Marine Corps flatly denies it. Actual code talkers interviewed for a History Channel documentary differed among themselves, and skepticism ranged all the way to one man who claimed he did not even have a bodyguard.
In a 2002 interview, Code talker Samuel Smith (who has since walked on) told me that some of them were assigned bodyguards only after a code talker was taken POW by American forces. While the code talkers were indoctrinated with the need to protect the code with their lives, it seems the bodyguards were deemed necessary to protect the code talkers from their own troops rather than from the Japanese.
Smith explained to me, without rancor, that in the island-hopping campaign there were no fixed lines. The Japanese often popped up from behind. Most of the white folks who manned the frontline combat units had never seen a full blood Indian, and the Dineh did, he supposed, look a bit like Japanese.
The central thread of the Windtalkers story appears to be an invention of screenwriters Joe Batteer and John Rice. As a plot device, it accentuates the fear of bonding Enders already had from being a lone survivor of a wiped out platoon and feeds the war movie cliché of the guys who are bonded by combat in spite of substantial differences.
Batteer and Rice did do some research. A real incident where a code talker was taken POW while skinny-dipping becomes, in the film, a confrontation with a racist Marine from the same unit as the code talker he is harassing. The real torture of a Navajo POW in an attempt to break the code finds its way into the script. A real incident on Saipan when code talkers were able to call off an artillery barrage by friendly forces is recounted.
Because the story focused on Nicholas Cage’s character, those parts of the Navajo story that make it Navajo are related in one-liners by Ben Yahzee, the movie character who wants to be a history teacher if he survives the war. He mentions “The Long Walk,” as the Dineh call their encounter with genocide, but one line does not communicate a blood memory of what it means to be Navajo any more than I could put a reader in Cherokee skin by uttering the phrase “Trail of Tears.”
Yahzee mentions in passing that Navajos were punished in boarding schools for expressions of their culture, but this does not tell us how that culture prepared the code talkers for their role with songs and prayers that are difficult feats of memory work, much more difficult than the World War II code. We are never made aware that many code talkers lived to see their exploits on film, even with diminished life expectancies for American Indians, because so many of them were in fact underage when they enlisted, a deception that was facilitated by the lack of written birth records on the reservation.
The irony that the code talkers operated state-of-the-art communications gear, then returned to a reservation without electricity, was unexplored in the film, as was the national disgrace of the death rate on that reservation at the time from “inanition” – medical jargon for starvation.
There is a scene where Enders comes to a spiritual understanding about his dishonorable assignment after drawing a cathedral (he is an Italian-Catholic) in flour left on a tabletop by Japanese civilians. Given the unlikely nature of the event (civilians leaving something edible and imported abandoned in a war zone), the scene appeared to show an obverse Navajo sandpainting, the “place where the gods come and go” according to some attempts to render the idea in English. The film, unlike Margaret Bixler’s 1992 book about the code talkers, tells us nothing about the sacredness of sandpainting, so the intent of the scene remains speculation.
It is a shame that Windtalkers did not allow the dominant culture to learn more about the Navajo. The cardinal Dineh value, hozho, is variously translated as “walking in beauty” or, simply, “balance.” Hozhowas illustrated the night I met Samuel Smith in 2002, when a woman asked him whether he forgave the Japanese?
“For a long time I didn’t,” he said, “but one day I got sick and I went to a medicine man. He told me I would just get sicker unless I get rid of the bad feelings. He was right. Sometimes you have to fight, but then you have to forgive.” Hozho was demonstrated in 1974 when a young Japanese, Kenji Kawano, was hitchhiking on the Navajo reservation and chanced to be picked up by the late Carl Gorman, a code talker and father of the famous artist R.C. Gorman. This chance encounter led to Kawano becoming the official photographer for the Navajo Code Talkers Association and to his publication of a book in 1990, Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, with a forward by Gorman.
The Navajo Code Talkers Association, Smith told me, had a debate about the movie centering on whether they should make a major push for the truth. They decided not. They decided that the white guys wanted to make a film to make money and knew how to make up a story to accomplish that because they are professionals. The code talkers decided that as long as the treatment of their role was respectful, they would not make a major issue about historical accuracy or whose story was in fact being told. Smith did strongly object to the title, claiming that the term “windtalkers” signifies persons who say much of little import.
Popular recognition of the code talkers was a long time coming. After years of rumors and almost a year of delay in the release date of Windtalkers, Indians in general and Dineh in particular had hoped for more than a western transported to the South Pacific.
There are larger issues to be explored than can be raised by a few rhetorical drive-bys woven into the fictional conflicts of a fictional white man under fictional orders. Samuel Smith, brought up with the blood memory of The Long Walk, related to me the outrage he and his relatives felt about the sinking of the Arizona at Pearl Harbor with great loss of life, outrage that led him to enlist at age 17 even though Navajos could not vote even at 21.
That a major studio has allowed even a flawed film like Windtalkers to consider Indians as fully human represents incremental progress, perhaps part of a modern yearning for some connection to American Indians that does not involve homicide or theft but rather the quaint value of honor, so famously expressed by Justice Hugo Black in the dictum Indian lawyers call the all-purpose federal Indian law dissent: “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.”
The U.S. made promises to Indian nations, but it also made promises to those who bear the sacrifice when the U.S. goes to war. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, adopted as the motto of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Robert O’Neill bore the battle for many years before he had the chance to deliver the hot lead response to an attack on the U.S. unseen since Pearl Harbor. An attack rendered even more appalling because it was not aimed at a military target. An attack that has cost the U.S. not only lives and money, but self-inflicted legal assaults on our traditions of liberty.
When he was only known as “the Shooter,” O’Neill related to Esquire that the military offers excellent life insurance, so excellent that he went into battle understanding he was worth more to his family if he did not return. Is that what Lincoln had in mind?
Does it really matter which SEAL put the first shot into Osama bin Laden and which SEAL put the last one? They risked their lives for us. To sell their story is not to sell their honor when governmental drones who risked nothing write their memoirs and advise Hollywood with more impunity than truth.
The SEAL story, like the code talkers story, is history as high adventure. It’s not right that everybody should cash in on that history except those who wrote it with their bodies. It was not right to do that to the code talkers and it’s not right to do that to the SEALs.
Happy Veterans’ Day.