The Old Trails Museum continued its History Highlight series when Dr. Laura Tohe presented Armed with Our Language, We Went to War: The Navajo Code Talkers to 37 attendees on August 15 at La Posada Hotel in downtown Winslow.

Dr. Tohe is a Professor of Indigenous Literature at Arizona State University. She has authored several books of poetry and the oral history book, Code Talker Stories. She is Diné and her late father, Benson Tohe, was a Code Talker. In her visual presentation, Dr. Tohe explored the Code Talkers’ cultural background, how the code was devised and used, and how Navajo spiritual beliefs were used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

A select group of young Navajo men enlisted in the Marines during World War II. They came from government and parochial schools where they were forbidden to speak the Navajo language. Before being shipped to the South Pacific, they were charged with devising a secret code for use in transmitting messages over the radio waves. Using the Navajo language, they devised a code that the enemy never deciphered. Above is the Navajo Code Talker statue at the Navajo Nation’s Veteran’s Memorial Park in Window Rock, Arizona.

By the end of the war, over 400 young Navajo Code Talkers were credited with saving many lives, but a cloak of secrecy hung over their service until the code was declassified in 1968. They were finally honored for their military contributions starting in 1982, when President Reagan designated August 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day. President Clinton signed the law that awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers in 2000, and in 2001 President George W. Bush presented it to the four surviving members and the families of the deceased. The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the two highest civilian awards given in the United States.

The 2015 Summer History Highlight was scheduled to coincide with the Arizona Historical Society’s (AHS) Flagstaff and Tucson runs of Above and Beyond: Arizona and the Medal of Honor. The exhibit features historic artifacts, photographs, and other media that tell stories of service and heroism from the days of the Arizona Territory through the Vietnam War. AHS developed Above and Beyond to pay tribute to the Arizonans who have received the highest military award given in the United States Armed Forces, including Winslow’s own Jay R. Vargas.

Jay Vargas was born in 1938, graduated from Winslow High School in 1956, and joined the Marine Corps in 1963. While serving in Vietnam in 1968, Vargas’ company engaged in fierce combat with the enemy at the village of Dai Do. It was for his actions in that battle that, in a May 1970 ceremony at the White House, President Richard M. Nixon presented (then) Major Vargas with the Congressional Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty . . .”

Through a special partnership, the Old Trails Museum has loaned several items donated to our collections by Colonel Vargas to the AHS exhibit, including his uniform, medals, and childhood baseball glove. Above and Beyond is on display from May 15 to October 25, 2015, at the AHS Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff, and from November 12, 2015, to May 7, 2016, at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tucson. Go to the AHS website for directions and hours.

The 2015 Summer History Highlight, a partnership program between the Old Trails Museum and the Winslow Arts Trust, was made possible in part by Arizona Humanities. For the latest updates on all of the Old Trails Museum’s exhibits and programs, subscribe to our “News” feed or “like” the museum on Facebook.