Leon Yellowhair, 85, and Travis Yaiva, 79, are used to experiments.
Today, the two residents of Payson Care Center are participating in a program designed to bring the traditions, practices and foods of their Native American heritage into a typical senior-care setting the first effort of its kind in Arizona and perhaps the first in the country, according to PCC Administrator David Needles.
But in the early 1940s, Yellowhair and Yaiva were part of a very different kind of experiment. And many historians claim that it may have altered the outcome of World War II.
Yellowhair, a Navajo, and Yaiva, a Hopi, were among the Native American code talkers who took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. Their job was to transmit messages by telephone and radio in their native languages a code the Japanese never broke.
War of words
The idea to use Native American languages for secure communications came from Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos. Aware of the military's search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it, Johnston thought the Navajo language was the answer because it was unwritten, extremely complex, and unintelligible to almost anyone except a Navajo.
Eventually some 400 Navajos served in the code talker program. Navajos were sent to Marine units deployed in the Pacific Theater where their primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications.
In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members. As of 1945, about 540 Navajos served as Marines. From 375 to 420 of those trained as code talkers.
It was at Iwo Jima that the code talkers immortalized themselves to the degree that Major Howard Connor declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
Still, it was not until 1992 that Native American Code Talkers were officially honored for their extraordinary contributions during WWII with an exhibit in the Pentagon that documents the history of the code.
Honoring history and tradition
"Many people fail to realize that the victory in the South Pacific would not have been possible without the code talkers," Daniel Bejar said. "They are a major reason why we are sitting here today with the freedoms we have."
It is Bejar's new job to honor that history and the history of all Native Americans by keeping it alive for the Native American residents of Payson Care Center.
Bejar, a Mescalero Apache who lives and works in Prescott, describes himself as "a Native American traditional helper or you might want to say counselor."
At Needles' request, Bejar has just begun to provide Native American traditional services for Payson Care Center's five Native American residents a mix of Navajo, Apache and Hopi and to bring what he calls "more indigenous ways of healing, ceremony to promote wellness, and other things that Native Americans are more comfortable with than a sterile hospital setting."
Bejar comes to the center twice a month to organize healing circles, use "sacred medicines like eagle feathers," and create "a spiritual-focus place for (the residents) to come together and become familiar with each other."
Meanwhile, Bejar said, "The staff is very interested in providing more foods that they are accustomed to, rather than the kind of food you normally find in institutions. Today, we had a traditional Navajo dish called 'dine' (pronounced din-ay), a mutton stew. We have Apache residents here, too, and for them we have what's called acorn stew.
"This generation of elders, many of them have never been in an environment like this," Bejar said. "They're not used to the language, the white walls, the fluorescent lights, the music, the food. So we're trying to create a setting that's more comfortable for them, that reminds them more of home and triggers positive memories."
In native cultures, he said, it is believed that physical and mental problems arise from being out of balance with life and that the new PCC program has been created to bring about "spiritual re-alignment."
Change of view
Another goal is to alter some long-held negative perceptions, Bejar said.
"To many Native American elders, all institutions within the dominant culture still bear shades of boarding school, or of punishment. They're not going to step forward with their needs or speak up about things. We want to erase those fears."
The central idea for the program came from Needles, who was working as an administrator for a facility in Flagstaff when he noted the lack of health-care services within all of Arizona's Native American reservations and tribes.
"For example," he said, "the Navajo reservation is the largest in the country, and it has a total of three nursing homes. And only one of those is able to handle skilled care or take Medicare patients.
"We're trying to reach out to not only that group of people, but to all Native Americans in the state to provide them with a continuum of health services all the way to spiritual health."
Like his fellow Native American residents at PCC, Leon Yellowhair is embracing the new program much like he embraced his adventures as a code talker.
And there is a reason for that, he will tell you with a wide smile.
"Navajos aren't afraid of anything."