The Washington Redskins ownership finally was forced to capitulate in the decades long- battle to force a beloved and fanatically supported NFL team to ditch the name that fans were beloving on the dubious theory, rejected by most native Americans and people capable of critical thought, that despite all outside appearances having a team carrying a Native American name dishonors Indians rather than keeps their story up front and vital in American consciousness and culture. Because the decision was a sudden biproduct of the George Floyd Freakout, the D.C. team wasn’t prepared for a change, and had no names in reserve. (It apparently had a shot at the name “Warriors,” which alliterates at least, but was late moving on the copyright and trademarks, so that name has, as they say, left the wigwam.
Meanwhile, gag names are flying around like arrows at the Little Big Horn, so ending the mockery is urgent. We are hearing calls for the Washington Weasels, the Washington Swamp-Dwellers, the Washington Investigators, the Washington Slime, The Washington Bootlickers…even the retro “Washington Murderous Savages.” (I was an early advocate for “The Washington Concussions.”) However, one serious suggestion offered by the President of the Navajo Nation Jonathan Nez is brilliant: the Washington Code Talkers.
I second, with enthusiasm.
Few professional sports team have nicknames carrying any historical significance. Most are generic animals, birds, even reptiles. Some of the oldest names are meaningless, like “Red Sox.” Just a few refer to or referenced history: the now defunct Chicago Fire, the San Francisco 49’ers, the Philadelphia 76ers, and a few others. One great virtue of the Code Talkers, in addition to keeping the Native American connection to the D.C. team, is that it would compel the team’s fans to learn some history for a change. (I assume that the 2002 Nicholas Cage bomb, “Windtalkers,” did not have sufficient reach to educate most Americans.)
Who, or what, were the Code Talkers?
During World War I, Choctaw and other American Indian recruits in the U.S. army in Europe transmitted battle messages by telephone in their tribal languages. As World War II loomed, some in the armed services recalled the usefulness of this tactic.
Beginning in 1940, the U.S. army recruited Comanches, Choctaws, Hopis, Cherokees, and others to transmit messages. In 1942, Philip Johnston,a World War I veteran and a civil engineer for the city of Los Angeles, proposed to the United States Marine Corps that the use of the Navajo language would be valuable in ensuring communications secrecy. Johnston had been raised on a Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary, and spoke the tribe’s language fluently. He arranged a demonstration using the Navajo language that so impressed the Marines that they quickly recruited 29 Navajos for the special coding project. Ultimately, there were Code Talkers from at least 16 tribes who served in the Army, the Marines, or the Navy.
Many Native American Code Talkers in World War II used their everyday tribal languages to convey messages, a method that became known as Type Two Coding. Type One Codes, in contrast, used the languages as the basis for coded English. For the Marines, the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers assigned a Navajo word to each letter of the English alphabet; Comanches, Hopis, and Meskwakis, did the same in the other services to create codes based on their languages. In the Navaho Type Two Code, for example, the Navaho word moasi, meaning cat, stood for the letter C.
The Navajos, Comanches, Hopis, and others also matched their words to military terms for types of planes, ships, or weapons. In the Navaho code, atsá, meaning eagle, designated “transport plane.” The Hopi code used paaki–houses on water—to mean ships. Comanches called tanks wakaree´—Comanche for “turtle.”
The Marine Corps established a Code Talking school that eventually trained more than 400 Navajos in communications and committing the Navaho code to memory. Code Talkers had to master both wire and radio equipment, often carrying it on their backs. In the field they were given messages in English, and without writing them down, translated and sent them to the next Code Talker, until the message was written down in English and entered into a message logbook.
The Navajo and Hopi were assigned to service in the Pacific; the Comanches fought the Germans in Europe, and the Meskwakis Code Talker were assigned to North Africa. Code Talkers from other tribes participated in combat operations in various locations.
At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, a 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. They sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
For the Ex-Redskins to adopt the nickname “Code Talkers” would be a wonderful tribute to Native Americans as well as veterans and the Greatest Generation. It would make the team a living messenger of history, and the name would be original and unique in the world of sports.
Oh, I’m certain activists of some kind will figure out a way to argue that the name is racist, for this why we can’t have nice things. But that’s a given whatever name is finally adopted.
I vote for the Washington Code Talkers.