Meeting Lawrence Alfred, Grandson of a Navajo Code Talker

arizona 89

We were in Navajo Nation in Arizona somewhere along the hot, barren Highway 89 near its junction with 160 which goes to Tuba City. It was the fourth day of our summer trip — seven of us, family, from Memphis, Oxford and Tupelo, Mississippi, and the Nashville area — and we four ladies had not yet bought any jewelry. We’d talked for months about buying earrings from a real local artisan. So when we saw the long segmented line of roadside vendor stands, we all yelled, “Stop!” The white Ford van pulled into the desert dirt in a cloud of dust, and we all piled out to look at the wares.

Judi and the men were quick to get back on the van, but Lee, Sally, and I got caught up midway at the tables of a Navajo man named Lawrence Alfred, who was wearing a red and black Redskins cap. A Washington Redskins football team cap?

Lawrence Alfred

He was interested in languages, he said, dialects in particular, and he wanted to know about ours. We were all Mississippi born and raised (Cleveland and Oxford), and he asked where the Southern dialect had its origin. I tried to tell him about my Scots-Irish ancestors and how they settled in the eastern mountains and then migrated into Alabama and Mississippi looking for land, and how the speech of all related settlers influenced the language patterns of the people in the South. I did not tell him how my people moved to Noxubee County, Mississippi, in 1833 after the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty was signed, opening the land for white settlement.

I bought a pendant from him with a blue-green turquoise stone that was made by his uncle.

Then Lee turned the conversation and asked Lawrence Alfred about his Redskins hat, and we got his story.

redskins hatHe was a Redskins fan, and the name, in a push to be changed so as not to offend Native Americans, did not offend him. He knew the history, he said. He pointed to the red rock mesas all around us. “We got red clay from the mesa and used it as a sun screen. We rubbed it on our arms, and so people called us the red men.” He would be offended if the team did change its name.

History explains the meaning. Awareness brings acceptance. I wish my people could understand the importance of a name or a concept based on its history, or even historical truth. But as terms and their interpretation change to succeeding generations who are either clueless or embarrassed, my people want to change history instead of understanding it and learning from it.

Lawrence wore his grandfather’s military pin on the cap. His grandfather, now deceased, was a World War II veteran. He was a Navajo Code Talker. Johnny Alfred was his name.

alfred hat with military pin

The little-known language of Arizona’s Navajo Code Talkers helped lead the Allied forces to victory over Japan in WWII. The Navajo men developed an unbreakable code alphabet from their language by attaching familiar words to letters. For example, one way to say the word “Navy” in Navajo code would be tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-ked-di-glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca). The enemy could not break the code. The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.

In 1982 President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation honoring them. “Equipped with the only foolproof, unbreakable code in the history of warfare, the code talkers confused the enemy with an earful of sounds never before heard by code experts,” Reagan said.

In 2000 President Bill Clinton awarded the original 29 Code Talkers the Congressional Silver Medal.

I felt a kinship with Lawrence. My dad was a WWII veteran. Then I learned Johnny’s wife was named Lucille, as was my mother. Johnny Alfred was 22 years old when he enlisted in the Marines in October of 1942. He survived four of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific: Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa. He brought honor to the Navajo Nation and the Navajo language.

lawrence alfred and johnnySon Lawrence with pictures of Johnny Alfred

No wonder his grandson is interested in languages.

Navajo flags were flown at half-staff when Johnny Alfred died in 2011. Johnny Alfred brought honor to America.

The beauty of America is in the differences of its people. We are of different nationalities, religions, political beliefs, educational levels, skills, and language backgrounds, but when our country is threatened, we come together as Americans and we take care of our land. (Or we used to . . . . )

Lawrence’s aunt drove up and came over to enter our conversation. She had been out on the mesa gathering pieces of petrified wood. She gave one to Lee, Sally, and me.

This is a family who wants to keep its stories alive. I treasure this, and I treasure meeting Lawrence, his aunt, buying his uncle’s pendant, receiving the gift of petrified wood . . . and most of all, hearing the stories.

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