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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 29, 2002 - Issue 64


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Honor, Heritage Of Navajo Code

credits: Former GHO winner Notah Begay walks down the ninth fairway.
John Long © 2002, Hartford Courant
CROMWELL, CT - Notah Begay III paused on the practice range at the TPC at River Highlands Tuesday. The man whose first name means "almost there" in Navajo needed a moment.

"I never met my grandfather because he died before I was born," Begay said. "It doesn't change a thing, though. I'm so proud of him.

"He's always there with me."

His grandfather, Notah Begay, was one of about 375 Navajo code talkers recruited during World War II. The movie "Windtalkers," which opened Friday and stars Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater, tells their story.

The U.S. government, after years of oppressive treatment toward the Navajo, decided the Navajo language would be a perfect secret weapon. The language was used as a code in the Pacific theater during World War II.

"There were certain code words, like `egg' meant bomb and `butterfly' means plane," said Begay III, the 2000 Canon Greater Hartford Open champion. "My grandfather would talk Navajo and pass the information on, coordinates for the bomb to be dropped and so forth. The Japanese couldn't break the code. It's ironic because it was simply the Navajo language. Simple, but beautiful."

Begay's performance since winning the GHO has been anything but beautiful. Disk problems in his back have hindered him. He was 197th on the money list last year ($100,538). And this year he hasn't earned a dollar, having missed the cut in all 11 tournaments he has played.

"Struggle? No, my life is great," he said. "I'm on tour with the opportunity to come out here and battle. I never feel sorry for myself."

That's because his grandfather and father inspire him.

"I saw the movie on Father's Day," Notah's father, Notah Begay II, said by telephone from Phoenix. "It was very moving. [My father] never talked about what he did or that he even served in World War II. He and all the Navajos were told `this is secret and don't tell anyone anything about what you have done.' I never found out about what my dad in the war until after he died."

Begay served in Okinawa and Saipan for about two years.

"He became sick and had to spend a year in Honolulu," Begay II said. "Again, I never knew that he was sick until after he died. I still don't know what he was sick with."

Begay was one of the first Navajos to enlist, despite enduring a lifetime of insults. As a boy, the U.S. government took him from his birthplace outside of Gallup, N.M., and sent him to Arizona for schooling. It Anglicized his name, ordered him not to speak his native language and cut off the traditional Navajo knot in his hair.

He ran away and hid.

The government found him and sent him to the Albuquerque Indian School. He quit school again in the ninth grade.

Soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he began serving the country that had put his family on a reservation.

"He was willing to overlook those indifferences, the things done against him and how he was treated," Begay III said. "We're talking about a group of people who weren't afforded basic rights in this country. It was not only a huge commitment to enlist, but also demonstrated their love of this land."

His grandfather was a radio-man on the front line.

"He put his life on the line," Begay II said.

The grandfather's courage and pride has flowed to son and grandson. Begay II earned a basketball scholarship, despite prejudices against him, at St. Joseph's College, a defunct Division II school in Albuquerque.

When he was 6, Notah Begay III often climbed a chain-link fence at dawn with a couple of battered golf clubs to play a few holes at a municipal course. He cleaned toilets and picked up range balls for playing privileges.

Begay II's credo was, "never give up, strive for your dreams."

Living on a reservation growing up, Begay III, who's half Navajo, one quarter San Felipe and one quarter Isleta, had to boil water to take a shower. His dad scoured flea markets and yard sales to try and come up with a set of clubs for his son.

Begay III persevered. He earned a scholarship to Stanford. He shot 59 on the Buy.Com Tour in 1998. The only Native American on the PGA Tour, he has won four tournaments.

For the first time this year, father will be with his son this week at a tournament stop.

"It's time for Notah to reach down deep. I want to be there, to support and help him, if I can," Begay II said before boarding a flight Tuesday for Connecticut.

His son hasn't seen "Windtalkers" yet.

"I got sick with a sinus infection, so I missed the world premiere," he said.

He and his father plan on watching the movie this week.

"It will be emotional," Begay III said. "It's a chance for me to pay homage to my grandfather and all the men that served with him."

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