Native Village
Youth and Education news
November 1, 2010, Volume 2

Code talker, 87, never misses a day in kindergarten
Condensed by Native Village

Arizona: Early every school day, David Patterson puts on his jacket, leaves his Shiprock home, and walks 3 miles to Atsa' Biyaazh Community School.

Patterson, 87, one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, spends six hours each day with the school's 18 Kindergarten students.

"I like to work with kids and they like me," he said. "Everywhere I go, no matter whose kids, in town, anywhere, I hear 'Grandpa, Grandpa.'
"They come around to me, hug me, they make me feel good so they are just like my grandkids," he said.

For the last seven years Patterson has served under the Foster Grandparent Program. He helps teachers with daily lessons, teaches Navajo language, patrols the halls, and manages the children during breakfast and lunch.

Patterson is considered to be everybody's grandpa at the school. Teachers, staff and students all respect and look up to him.

"We are very lucky to have him. He is like a role model," said Atsa' Biyaazh reading coach Julia Donald. "Everyone likes him, there's respect all the way around."

Patterson works as hard as the teachers and asks for nothing in return. He can't think of a better way to spend his time.

"I come in and do some bilingual, teaching them how to say different things," he said. "Hogan, sheep and other animals, birds and what it means in Navajo and all that.

"Some speak very little Navajo," he said. "They're learning slowly. Nowadays it seems like parents, they don't have time to teach their kids. They're all working or doing some other things."

Patterson was born on Nov. 11, 1922. He went to boarding schools, then Catholic school. He came home every Friday and returned to the dorms every Sunday.

"Those days we all go through a lot of things," he said. "The Navajo, we used to have a thousand head of sheep, used to herd sheep in the summer time and go to school in the winter time. That time you had boarding school, never had public school.

Busses weren't available to take him to and from home.  "It wasn't hard for me, those days I could run here and there," he said.

In 1943,  the U.S. government needed Navajo volunteers for World War II "special training." 

"I was in the 10th grade ... they wanted some boys to be volunteers," he said. "I volunteered ... that's when they had the Navajo Code Talker, so I went to school down to San Diego.

 "Everything up in the sky, on the land, in the ocean, everything that exists, we ... used those names in Navajo to make it into English to send the message so nobody else understands. We had to learn all those in one month. We were studying what seemed like days and nights because we had to.

"That's when they tried us out, the first 29 they called," he said. "We had to listen to [others], we had to go, we didn't have no choice. So I don't see why they liked the Navajo language but they had a good idea. The Navajo language helped to win the war."."

Patterson served in the Marines through 1945. The experience had a great impact on his life and the lives of the children of the future.

"You see, we are the greatest people on Earth, the way I look at it," he said. "Way back in history, they say where did the Navajos come from, China? Or what? And an old Navajo medicine man used to tell them we came out an old hole, we came out of there, the ground."

Patterson used the GI Bill of Rights to attend school in Oklahoma, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University. He studied social work, married, and had six children.

Later, he returned to the reservation and worked for Navajo Nation until he retired in 1987. With his children now living across the country, Patterson had little to do. So he decided to volunteer.

"Every since then (retirement) it seemed like I'm just lonely, looking around, saying what can I do? I want to do something. I'm a person always on the go," he said. "I was lost. I had nothing else to do so I decided I'll do some volunteer work so that's what I did."

Donald said Patterson is one of four foster grandparents who help at the school. Every year Patterson shows up on the very first day of classes.

"He beats some of our staff here in the morning," she said. "He isn't required to be here but he's here."

So what makes the 87-year-old code talker -- one of a tiny handful still living -- show up each day?

"They're beautiful little children," he said.

Original 29 Navajo Codetalkers
Begay, Charley (or Charlie) Tsosie (or Sosie) Begay, Roy Begay, Samuel Hosteen Nez Benally, John Ashi
Bitsie, Wilsie H. Brown, Cosey Stanley Brown, John Jr. Chee, John
Cleveland, Benjamin H. Crawford, Eugene Roanhorse Curley, David Damon, Lowell Smith
Dennison, George H. Dixon, James Gorman, Carl Nelson Ilthma, Oscar B.
June, Allen Dale Leonard, Alfred Manuelito, Johnny R. McCabe, William
Nez, Chester Nez, Jack Oliver, Lloyd Pete, Frank Danny (or Denny)
Willie, John W. Jr. Thompson, Nelson S. Tsosie, Harry (Killed In Action) Yazzie, William
Palmer, Joe (originally Balmer Slowtalker)
same person
Slowtalker, Balmer (later Joe Palmer)

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