Navajo Code Talkers to visit Tempe campus

11-03-09 Code
Translations of military codes used in WWII by Code Talkers are displayed on the fourth floor of Hayden Library.(Scott Stuk | The State Press)
Published On:
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
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ASU’s Labriola National American Indian Data Center is preparing to hold a book signing with two Navajo Code Talkers as part of a traveling exhibit on display at the Tempe campus.

The exhibit, titled “Our Fathers, Our Grandfathers, Our Heroes: The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II,” opened at ASU earlier this month.

The book signing will be held Thursday as the official opening to showcase the exhibit, said Joyce Martin, curator of the Labriola Center.

Bahe Ketchum and George James Sr., two original Code Talkers, will be speaking to the public and signing the book, which shares the same title as the exhibit and contains much of the same information.

Currently, the Circle of Light Navajo Educational Project is in charge of organizing and funding the exhibit, including the Code Talkers’ visit next week, according to Michele Pracy, exhibits coordinator for the Circle of Light Project.

Pracy also said ASU is fortunate to be provided with such an
opportunity.

Circle of Light has struggled to arrange for Code Talkers to appear at all of the exhibits’ temporary locations.

“Most of [the Code Talkers] are very frail right now. Since the start of the Arizona tour, we’ve lost some and many others are battling serious health issues,” Pracy said. “We’re very fortunate because it’s getting harder and harder to get them to go places, so we are very excited that we are getting them to speak at ASU.”

Martin said she hopes the special event will bring in a larger audience for the exhibit.

“We’ve had several people asking about it already,” Martin said. “We’re really excited about it, and I think it’s going to be a really nice event.”

The exhibit, which began as part of a high school project at Fort Wingate High School in Fort Wingate, N.M., showcases the story and work of the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II.

The project was designed by several students as a final for a class taught by Zonnie Gorman, project coordinator at the Circle of Light Navajo Educational Project.

Circle of Light is a nonprofit organization based in Gallup, N.M., that was contacted by the high school in 2001 to help teach the students about Native American culture.

“We were asked to work with some junior and senior high school students on an oral history project, and the kids happened to be interested in the Code Talkers,” Gorman said. “They wanted to do what they were calling a ‘mini exhibit,’ but it turned into much more than we expected.

It turned into a full-blown, professional exhibit.”

Once the project was finished, Circle of Light thought it was so exceptional that it should become a traveling exhibit, and agreed to fund it, Pracy said.

“They put together the complete exhibit and did all the research themselves. Any curator would be proud of the work they did. It was really fine, original research on their part,” she said.

The exhibit was first displayed in 2001 at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz. and includes 33 historical photos with text, visual facsimiles of World War II documents and pieces of the actual code, among other relevant artifacts.

ASU is the second to last stop of the exhibit’s three-year Southwest Inaugural Tour, which covers Arizona and New Mexico.

While at ASU, the exhibit is displayed on the fourth floor of Hayden Library and is open to the public, free of charge.

The exhibit closes Nov. 13 and will make its last stop in Lake Havasu, Ariz.

“It’s a four-week exhibit at each stop, and with a week for set up and a week for break down, there’s only time for six stops a year,” Pracy said. “I tried to blanket the state with places that could house it where the audience could be an academic audience as well as a public audience.”

Pracy said ASU fits this description well, and Martin was thrilled to have the Labriola Center considered as a potential host.

“I was contacted by a representative from the Circle of Light Project, and at the time, they were working on a grant proposal to have the exhibit travel around,” Martin said. “I had told her that unfortunately we may not be able to pay to have it come to campus, but if it could come here at no cost to us, we would be thrilled to have it, and we are thrilled.”

Reach the reporter at keshoult@asu.edu.