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Olympic Visitors Learn about Navajo Culture - 2002-02-21

The state of Utah is home to five Indian tribes, and visitors to the Salt Lake Winter Olympics are learning about the region's native heritage.

The opening ceremony of the Olympics highlighted Utah's native cultures. Fred White is director of tourism for the Navajo nation, a tribe of 250,000 that straddles the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

"Our Navajo nation had an opportunity to work with four other tribes from the state of Utah, and that's the Ute, Paiute, Goshutes and Shoshone. And the five tribes welcomed the world to this part of the country at the games. And our spiritual leader did a welcome in our language, and the other tribes did a welcome in their language," Mr. White said.

Mr. White says the Navajo and other native groups are using this opportunity to the tell the world their stories.

"We're Navajo, but in our language we call ourselves Dine. That means we are the children of the holy people, and we really believe that. We're here to basically capitalize on the opportunity to talk to the worldwide audience, whether it be through media or international delegations that are coming from all over," he said.

Navajo writer Dory Peters is at a native cultural center set up in Salt Lake City for the Olympics. He has written a novel about the code talkers. Called "The Warriors' Code," the book is based on research with family members who served in the military. He explains the secret cipher.

"Potato would be a grenade. A hummingbird would be an airplane. And They would take the word in Navajo, for example, "wol-la-chee" means ant, and they take the first letter of the English word ant, A, and that would be the first word of the code, A, B, C, and so forth," Mr. Peters said.

That was the easy part, says Mr. Peters.

"But taking the English word and turning it back into Navajo, and under fire at the same time, getting shot, was another thing," he added.

Samuel Tsosie, 76, displays a congressional medal he received for his work as a Navajo code-talker five decades ago. He recalls the kinds of words he transmitted by radio during the war.

"Like artillery, tanks, or whatever. A plane, a dive bomber would be Kineh, a chicken hawk," Samuel Tsosie explained.

When U.S. forces took the Pacific Island of Kiribati, Mr. Tsosie remembers the message that another Navajo code talker sent on the radio.

"The way he was saying it was "sheep eyes is cured," he said.

That meant the island of Kiribati had been secured.

Writer Dory Peters says the 400 Navajos who used their language skills in the U.S. military had some trouble adjusting to their roles.

"It was confusing for them at the beginning because the majority of them went to boarding school on the reservation and they were told don't speak Navajo. And if they were speaking Navajo, they were punished severely. And so now they were at Camp Pendleton or Camp Elliot in San Diego and they were told to use Navajo as part of the their basic training," he said.

The Navajo code talkers were a highly effective weapon. Historians say the Japanese could never break the code.

The Navajo language is now a proud part of the Native American heritage, on display for Olympic visitors here in Salt Lake City.