Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to include comments from Representative Anthony Allison.
GALLUP, N.M. (KRQE) – The Navajo Code talkers served the Allied Countries with superb skill, transmitting over 800 secret military messages without errors and without ever having their code broken. They were “critical to the victory at Iwo Jima” and other battles, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Now New Mexico lawmakers say it’s the state’s responsibility to preserve its history.
“The state of New Mexico, as well as the country, absolutely has a responsibility to preserve the history of brave and courageous Code Talkers,” Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-Bernalillo) said in a committee meeting last week. “We have to figure out a way.”
A Navajo Code Talkers Museum is in the works, but building it has been a slow process. Recently, Navajo Nation members and Code Talkers gave state legislators an update during a committee meeting. The big picture: The project is short by millions of dollars right now, and the urgency for completing the project is increasing.
For years now, New Mexico lawmakers have been asking for a museum honoring the Code Talkers. Back in 2012, they passed a memorial to get the ball rolling on a feasibility study. Now, a decade later, they still have yet to start construction.
What has been done, according to the latest update from the Navajo Divison of Transport, is a site survey, a master plan, and a handful of community meetings. COVID-19 delays and a lack of funds are part of what’s holding up the project, a report shows.
The plan is for the museum to sit atop a hill about two miles from Window Rock, Arizona. That would put the building about a mile inside the New Mexico side of the New Mexico-Arizona border and about 18 miles from Gallup.
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The proposed museum would be located near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Wilson & Company created a programming document for the would-be museum. It lays out roughly 20,000 square feet of gallery space, a 4,150 square foot cafeteria, and outdoor features, such as an observation deck and memorial garden.
The latest estimate for the cost of building the museum is around $45 million, according to last week’s presentation. It’s also not yet clear who will fund that.
If funded, this wouldn’t be the first multi-million-dollar museum in New Mexico located miles from a town with more than 10,000 residents. KRQE News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker previously explored the rarely-visited El Camino Real Museum outside Socorro New Mexico. It too was a project that took years to get funded and built, but once complete, only attracted a fraction of the expected visitor count.
KRQE News 13 tried to ask Regan Hawthorne, CEO of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum, more about the location and how many visitors they expect. But we were unable to reach Hawthorne.
Rep. Anthony Allison (D-San Juan) told KRQE News 13 he supports building the museum near Window Rock. And he says he’s hopeful it’ll attract half a million visitors a year.
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Conceptual renderings from Wilson & Company show what the museum could look like. From NMLEGIS.
One idea is to let the Navajo Nation have funding control. But, Rep. Allison suggested letting the state’s Cultural Affairs Department provide funds instead: “If we put them under that, they would not ever run out of money,” he told the committee.
Another possibility, he adds, is using federal funds. “You know, all entities and organizations under the federal government never run out of money. And if we’re going to make the Navajo Code Talker Museum a reality, we ought to treat it as a national heritage, as a national shrine equal to the Lincoln Memorial, equal to the White House, of that caliber, because it was the Navajo language that saved America,” he said. “So let’s treat it as such, and put it under the federal government.”
Regardless of exactly how it gets funded, Regan Hawthorne, CEO of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum, said the museum needs to happen. The community has been waiting for over a decade.
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Navajo Code Talkers Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo attached to a Marine Artillery Regiment in the South Pacific. Image from National Archives.
“For too many years, we have seen this proverbial can kicked down the road,” Hawthorne said. “We are at a crossroads now to where we are pursuing any avenue of funds to build this museum.”
The number of original Navajo Code Talkers continues to dwindle. The group spearheading the Code Talkers Museum is now down to four surviving Code Talkers. Descendants of Code Talkers make up the rest of the group.
“I want to see it started, at least started, within the lifetime of the four remaining Code Talkers,” Rep. Allison told KRQE News 13. “The youngest of which is 92 [years old].”