A statewide group headed by former House Speaker Jeff Groscost of Mesa is struggling to raise $200,000 for two memorials to honor the Navajo "code talkers" of World War II.
The independent nonprofit foundation has support from the Arizona Legislature and the Navajo Nation to place the memorials at the state Capitol and in Window Rock, where the tribal government is headquartered. Prominent American Indian artist Oreland Joe of Kirkland, N.M., already has finished his design, a 9-foot statue of a single code talker speaking into an Army radio.
But the group has received only $10,000 in donations and commitments for another $20,000, said Rep. Sylvia Laughter, I-Kayenta and lead sponsor of the memorial legislation. A Prescott Valley foundry has stopped its casting of the bronze statues because the memorial foundation hasn’t paid at least half of a promised $100,000 for its share of the work.
That has forced the group to postpone a September dedication of the Window Rock memorial, probably for a year. Laughter and Groscost blame the delay, at least in part, on Gov. Janet Napolitano and other lawmakers.
House Republicans leaders had agreed to provide funding for the project, both said, but that plan was rejected and a majority of lawmakers voted for a state budget written largely by the Napolitano administration.
"Everybody, including the governor, was claiming that our revenue forecast was much more positive," Laughter said. "This is nothing compared to the millions of dollars that a lot of legislators were asking for their districts."
However, Laughter’s move would have gone against a tradition that state Capitol monuments are funded by private donations instead of tax dollars.
Groscost said he believes the delay is relatively minor and the foundation still plans to dedicate the state Capitol memorial in January. A growing number of people want to see a permanent Arizona monument to the code talkers, he said.
"They couldn’t vote when this happened, but they volunteered to go defend this country," Groscost said. "Unfortunately, just like the other World War II veterans, they are dying at a very fast clip."
The Navajo code talkers were a group of 29 men who developed and used a military communication code based largely on their native language. The code was never broken by Japan, so experts believe it played a critical role in the Allied victory in the Pacific theater.
But the contribution of the code talkers was unknown for decades because the U.S. military kept the entire effort a secret. Only in recent years have the Navajos been honored with medals for valor and a movie about them called "Windtalkers."
Laughter struck a deal almost two years ago with Joe, whose official Web site says he is of Navajo and Ute descent. He also has designed another code talker memorial located in Gallup, N.M.
Last year, the Legislature authorized placing one of the memorials at the Capitol, but only if the costs were paid for with private donations.
Laughter said she didn’t work on fund raising for months because of the death of her son in an accident. Not wanting to disappoint the surviving code talkers, Laughter said she approached friends from the East Valley such as Groscost and Rep. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa. They helped Laughter to push for state funds to finish the project.
After that plan fell through, Laughter and other supporters created the foundation and now are planning major fundraisers in Laughlin, Nev., in August, and at the Navajo Nation Fair Days in September. They also have secured a promise from a Phoenix construction company to prepare the ground at both memorial locations at no charge.
Ed Reilly, owner of Bronzesmith Fine Arts Foundry, notified Groscost by e-mail last week that the casting will resume once additional money comes in. Laughter said Joe wants to wait for his $100,000 payment until the other costs are paid off.
Laughter said she’s confident the foundation can raise all of the funds by the end of the year.
"I think it is incumbent on all of us to recognize the Navajo code talkers, and this is a very small thing we can do," she said.
Want to help?
To make a donation to the Navajo code talkers memorial, call Fred Ash at (480) 969-8988 or visit www.codetalkermemorial.com.