by S.J. Wilson
Birdsprings, Navajo Nation, Arizona (NFIC)
Students of Little Singer Community School first met Gibson Jones in November of last year. Jones, who serves as president of Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War, and other members of the organization, visited the school to speak about the meaning of and care for the American flag and other issues.
Their presentation so inspired the fifth grade class that students wrote close to 20 letters asking that the group return and replace the wind-tattered flag that has flown over the school campus for the last year.
On April 8, NAVVW and American Legion Post #112 out of the neighboring community of Leupp were joined by Teddy Draper, Sr., a WWII Navajo Code Talker and Purple Heart recipient, to honor that request.
What started as a flag donation and blessing turned into a powerful event honoring veterans and service people – as well as fallen soldier Sgt. Lee Dewayne Todecheeney, Navajo, who was killed by mortar attack while on guard duty in Iraq.
Other dignitaries to gather at Little Singer included Marla Billy (Miss Navajo Nation), Benny Singer (oldest son of the medicine man who envisioned the school), Emma Jean Willie (Gold Star Mother) and George Willie (Code Talker and Gold Star father), and Aldrick, Selena and Elena Jackson (Little Singer Royalty).
Thomas Walker, Jr., Council Delegate, welcomed visitors and students. “This ceremony will create a lasting memory,” Walker said. “It is a reflection of the freedoms we value.”
Walker told students that as Navajos, they have dual citizenship. “When I look at the special flag of the Navajo Nation, I am reminded that our flag symbolizes our special sovereignty on Indian land – no one else in the mainstream society has that status.”
Jones took the microphone once again to tell students to remember that “freedom is not free. A price was paid for that freedom.”
This statement was brought home by Teddy Draper, Sr., who shared memories of his action in World War II as a Code Talker, and the events leading up to his being awarded the Purple Heart – an honor he waited 59 years after his wounding at Iwo Jima to receive, only days before his 81st birthday on April 2, Jones pointed out.
Draper addressed the importance of and his love for the Navajo language, telling students in Navajo that he has traveled all four directions teaching the language to Navajos and non-Indians as well.
The Code Talker went on to tell students of his enlistment while attending Fort Wingate (New Mexico) School, and that many Navajo men were enlisting at that time. Draper said that all were given a description of the duties of each branch of service, and were asked which branch they wanted to join.
“My first choice was the Merchant Marines,” Draper admitted. The Marines was his third choice. Nonetheless, because he’d passed his exams and could speak both Navajo and English, the Marine recruiters selected Draper – who began training under orders of complete secrecy in the use of radio equipment and “the Code.” Potential Code Talkers ate and slept in isolation as well.
Most moving were Draper’s memories of his wounding at Iwo Jima. He told of marching for two days and falling asleep in darkness. When he awoke early in the morning at sunrise, he saw a big ocean and a mountain. At the top of the mountain he could see Japanese soldiers – the scenario looked just like a big anthill covered in ants, Draper said.
As his company approached the mountain, they could see the smoke from the great battle. “A lot of men were killed at Iwo Jima,” Draper said.
He remembers fighting all day long in a very hard battle. His company was forced to fight with bayonettes, something Draper said that he’d never learned to do.
“We fought all day, many of the men I went to boot camp with were killed,” Draper said. He himself was wounded.
The Code Talker concluded his story by singing a poem that he had written in the Navajo language, describing the image of the American flag against the sky in Iwo Jima.
Marla Billy, Miss Navajo Nation, described her own feelings about the flag, and of her father’s service in Vietnam – as well as the importance of being Navajo.
“Remember who you are and where you come from. Be respectful of your elders, your family and your teachers,” Billy continued. “Girls, remember that a boy must be able to build a hogan and have money to support you before you have a baby for him. By hogan, I mean this is symbolic of a home.”
Billy told students that she has traveled all over the Navajo Reservation in her work as the ambassador for the Navajo Nation. Everywhere she goes, she sees 12-year-old girls having babies and having to drop out of school and live at home with the support of parents. “I don’t want to see that for you,” Billy urged.
“Stay away from drugs and alcohol and respect everyone,” she concluded.
The old flag was retired from the school’s central flagpole, and the new flag was raised. It was at this point in the ceremony that Jones, with the assistance of Billy, announced the loss of Sgt. Lee Dewayne Todecheeney of Lukachukai, Arizona, the first Navajo to die in the war in Iraq.
Todecheeney leaves behind a wife and two children, Jones added. Out of respect for the fallen soldier, the new flag was immediately lowered to half-mast and as taps rang out across the school grounds, many of the veterans present had tears in their eyes.
Melvin Nez said the Navajo Nation needed to remember and honor Todecheeney as they did Lori Piestewa, Hopi, who lost her life a year ago in Iraq. Further, he said, he would like to see Todecheeney’s family supported in a similar fashion.
Lucinda Godinez, principal, who has served Little Singer Community School for 13 years, rose to address the crowd. She too spoke of the loss of Todecheeney. With tears in her eyes, she contrasted the news of the passing of a young Navajo with her participation in a celebration only a week earlier welcoming soldiers back from Iraq.
“There were flags everywhere, children were smiling,” she began. “Suddenly a child walks up, a niece to the in-laws – you know, in-laws are always testing us,” she laughed. “She looked straight up at me and asks, ‘do flags tell stories?’ Sure they do, I told her.
“They are the best of storytellers. The way it moves tells a story of freedom. If you move a little closer, it tells a story of how soldiers believe that democracy is worth giving their life for,” Godinez continued.
She told her students that when she looks at the flag, she knows that she is blessed with rights that no one can take away. She urged everyone to take advantage of the same freedom, to be all that they can become and improve themselves for the benefit of people all around the world.
“If one day someone passes by and asks you, ‘do flags tell stories,’ say to them, sure they do! You have the chance to tell those stories as well,” Godinez concluded.