Shizhé’é yázhi Albert Smith, Navajo Code Talker on a new journey

Farina King, April 17, 2013

“Some ask, ‘Why fight in the white man’s war? They put your family in prison, tortured them. They treated you as the second-class citizen without the right to vote.’ It is my freedom too, my happiness and family too. I stand up for Mother Earth. She stands for my freedom. I can play, dance, sing, and stand for life. If I’m overburdened, I can cry, that’s my privilege. I went to war, because a foreign country wanted to take my Mother Earth, my freedom.” -Albert Smith, 25 March 2005, Provo, public symposium, Brigham Young University, Provo.

In Bighorse the Warrior, Tiana Bighorse defines what a “warrior” means to the Navajo:

“In Navajo, a warrior means someone who can get through the snowstorm when no one else can. In Navajo, a warrior is the one that doesn’t get the flu when everyone else does- the only one walking around, making a fire for the sick, giving them medicine, feeding them food, making them strong to fight the flu. In Navajo, a warrior is the one who can use words so everyone knows they are part of the same family. In Navajo, a warrior says what is in the people’s hearts. Talks about what the land means to them. Brings them together to fight for it” (xxiv).

Many people recognized my uncle Albert Smith as a warrior, because he served in World War II as a Navajo Code Talker. Many people also knew Albert as a warrior in the Navajo sense of the title. I, Farina King, did.

I can present the basic biographical information about my uncle. Albert Smith was born December 13, 1924 near Mariano Lake, Navajo Nation, New Mexico. He attended boarding school as a child in Crownpoint, Navajo Nation, New Mexico. At the age of 15, he volunteered to serve in the U.S. military during WWII with his older brother, George Smith, providing false information about his age at the time to meet the requirements to join. He was selected to train as a Navajo Code Talker. He served in the 4th Marine Division. He faced combat and worked in military code operations on the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He traveled abroad again for the U.S. military to Korea and left right before violence broke out in the Korean War. Smith returned to Navajo lands after his military service, and then married Helen L. Brown on September 11, 1953.

Smith continued and finished his education to become a teacher for Native American students and worked at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon for some time before returning to New Mexico to eventually settle in Gallup with his wife and their adopted daughter, Alberta. After retiring from teaching, he became active in the Navajo Code Talkers Association and served as its president for some time. He traveled extensively to speak publicly about his experiences as a Navajo Code Talker after the code was declassified in 1968. He participated in the making of documentaries and the writing of monographs concerning the history of the Navajo Code Talkers. He was also selected as the technical advisor for the film, Windtalkers, directed by John Woo in 2002.

At the age of 88 in the months before his passing, Smith continued to share his knowledge and experience with communities throughout the country.

What makes Albert a warrior to me in the Diné sense is that he always fought in life for the people he loved and the land. He touched many lives after his service in WWII as a teacher and parent. Helen and Albert opened their home to many children without a place to go. They opened their home to me and re-connected me with my Diné heritage and family. Shibízhí(my uncle) inspired me to pursue my dreams and passions, and to become a historian who could tell such incredible and touching stories as his own. He was the most spiritual person that I knew, reminding me that a Creator exists and cares for us his children. He taught me to respect all and our Mother Earth, and he showed me how the “mountain is our church.” The land orients us in our purposes and growth in life. I love you, Shibízhí, and I always will. I close with his own poem that he wrote in honor of his fellow veterans in World War II who passed on before him.

Rest in Peace

We are proud Americans,

Proud Navajo Marines

And, the Proud,

Humble Navajo Code Talkers.

Today as warriors

We stand before you with humility,

With honor and with pride.

These attributes, you left us to enjoy,

To care for, and to treasure.

With your passage through the shadow of death,

Came our precious Freedom, Liberty and Justice.

We survivors of these conflicts honor you,

With a special tribute;

Lend us your spiritual ears,

Drums of the ages have echoed

For you with songs and dances.

—poem by Albert Smith

[Images at the top show Albert Smith visiting Farina King’s class and presenting at Utah Valley University in the fall of 2011; and the historic photo of Navajo Code Talker brothers and King’s uncles Albert Smith and George Smith with “Remember Pearl Harbor sign during World War II]

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