Code talker Little: a dreamer who took action
By Noel Lyn Smith
(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)
That is how Nellie Little described meeting her husband, Navajo Code Talker Keith M. Little.
Nellie and Keith met in 1972 when they worked at the Navajo Forest Products Industry in Navajo, N.M.
"I was sitting and doing my work at the desk and I heard this voice - his voice - then his walk - a real short walk - I thought, 'Who does that belong to? Who is that there?'" Nellie said. "I kept thinking, 'I better find out who it belongs to.'"
A week after that first contact Nellie's superior formally introduced her to Keith.
"When I touched his hand, there's that special - I guess you get shaken or something like that - that special feeling in his hand," she said.
They started dating in 1973 and married in August 1974.
Little, 87, died Jan. 3 at Tséhootsooá Medical Center in Fort Defiance after battling melanoma.
He was Tódách'ái'nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for Tl'ázá Láná (Many Goats Clan). His chei was Tábaahá (Water's Edge Clan) and his nálá was Kiyaa'áanii (Towering House Clan).
Little was a leader, the longtime president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association and of the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation.
For years he traveled the country advocating for the National Navajo Code Talkers Museum and Veterans Center, a $42 million facility that would be built near here, because he believed in sharing the code talkers' stories.
"That's what his dream was," Nellie said. "We are going to carry out his dream and we are going to make that a reality."
Continuing that vision and remembering the man who worked endlessly to see it built was the focus of many at a memorial service Jan. 6 at the Window Rock Sports Center.
Zonnie Gorman, daughter of the late code talker Carl Gorman, gave a remembrance.
"The last part of Keith's life, he had a passion and to me is what truly made him a hero because he stepped forward," she said. "He could have stayed at home on his ranch with his family but he chose to get up every day because he was stepping forward for something greater than himself."
Arizona Department of Veterans Affairs Director Joey Strickland remembered meeting Little for the first time.
"I remember the first thing Keith ever told me when I asked him about his service in World War II. He said, 'My weapon was my language and that language probably saved thousands of lives,'" Strickland said. "I never forgot that statement."
They were friends for almost a decade, and Little's travels of that time included the Choctaw Nation in Louisiana, where Strickland is a tribal member.
During those visits, Little represented the Navajo Nation and his fellow veterans, Strickland said.
"We will never forget the honorable way he represented his country and his people," he said.
President Ben Shelly reiterated Little's statement about saying that the museum could be built if every American donated one dollar.
As Shelly spoke, Gallup residents Budweena Baldwin and Kenneth Brown carried a tribal flag around the arena as spectators placed money on the flag.
The impromptu action earned $355 that was presented to the foundation.
Samuel Tso, vice president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, also recalled Little's work to construct the museum and veterans center.
"He has accomplished and was still trying to get it completed to build a museum and veterans center," Tso said.
Other code talkers in attendance were Teddy Draper Sr., Alfred Peaches, John Pinto, Albert Smith, Joe Vandever Sr. and George Willie.
Notable people in the audience were President Shelly and his wife, Martha, former vice president Frank Dayish Jr., Gallup trader Ellis Tanner, New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar and Miss Navajo Nation Crystalyne Curley.
The service included reading letters of condolence from U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.
The speaker's office presented a plaque and the president's office issued a proclamation and presented a Navajo Nation flag to the family.
Little was born March 4, 1924, near Tonalea, Ariz. An older sister raised him because his parents, Hastin and Ora Little, died when he was a child.
He was 17 when he joined the Marine Corps and completed boot camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he trained to become a code talker.
Little served in the 4th Division and fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
He was honorably discharged in 1945 with the rank of private first class.
After the war, he attended Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma and Weber State College in Ogden, Utah.
He worked as a logger and became a logging manager for the Navajo Forest Products Industry, where he worked until retiring in 1987.
President George W. Bush presented Little the Congressional Silver Medal in 2001.
Although the U.S. government declassified information about the code talkers in 1968, Nellie did not know her husband was one.
"He didn't talk much about it until way later," she said. "I didn't know what a Navajo Code Talker was until I read about it. It took another ten years to finally know what he is talking about."
When her husband was not busy with code talker responsibilities, he was working with livestock on the family ranch in Crystal, N.M.
"He gets up around 5 o'clock in the morning," Nellie said. "He always asks for coffee then the day begins."
Nellie said that she would miss her husband's smile and voice.
"Every time when he speaks up his voice is so powerful, you can hear him," she said. "To the end he's still like that."
The funeral was held Jan. 7 at the Assembly of God Church in Fort Defiance and burial was on family land in Crystal.