John Kinsel, Sr., is 105 years old and one of the last three Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. He still lives in the cabin he built in 1950 in Lukachukai, on the Navajo Nation. And now the cabin needs a new roof.
The house’s green paint has chipped over time, but it’s the roof that needs immediate work. The relentless high winds that rock the mountain community have ripped parts of it off and leaks have developed. Stones and cinder blocks were placed on the roof to prevent it from blowing away completely.
“My dad made everything himself,” said Ronald Kinsel, John’s son and primary carer. “He’s a carpenter by trade, so everything here is done by him.”
The state of the cabin caught the attention of Loren Anthony, a television actor and founder of Chizh for Cheii, a group known throughout the Navajo Nation for delivering firewood to elders, especially during the COVID pandemic. -19.
“Thanks to Chizh for Cheii, I can get wood,” Ronald Kinsel said. “At 105, he needs all that warmth. It gets cold very quickly.
(John Kinsel has recently aged a few more years. His birth year had long been reported as 1921, but Ronald said the family recently confirmed through Catholic records that John was in fact born in 1917, which actually 105 this year.)
Chizh for Cheii has been helping people for nine years and Anthony doesn’t see the work stopping any time soon. On the contrary, he said, there is still a lot of work to be done. And part of it should fix Kinsel’s roof.
Code Talker and hard worker
Kinsel was among the elite Navajo Code Talkers, who used their Navajo language to develop an unbreakable code during World War II. The complexity of the language allowed the US military to communicate without divulging sensitive battle information. Code Talkers were credited with helping the Allied forces win the war and have been considered heroes ever since.
Kinsel was part of the 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. He took part in the battles of Bougainville, Guam and Iwo Jima, and is a recipient of the Purple Heart. But even with those accolades and honor, Kinsel lives in a house that is 70 years old and in need of repairs.
Over the years, Chizh for Cheii volunteers have done more than deliver wood to elders, Anthony said. They also help repair their homes when and if they can, and many of these repairs are done for veterans.
The work is usually posted on Anthony’s social media in hopes of getting people to donate funds or volunteer.
“John’s place is a tough place,” Anthony said. “It’s a tough place because I respect the fact that he built it himself. Everything he got came from the mountain. He went up the mountain, cut the logs and fixed his house from the ground to the roof. You can tell it’s all handmade.
Anthony said the volunteers did some remedial work, but the leak continued, just above where John’s bed was. They moved the bed and put pots in it to catch the water, but while Anthony hates the thought of having to replace the original artwork, he said Kinsel needed a new roof.
“For us, that’s a bit out of reach compared to what we’ve done over the years,” Anthony said. “But it’s something where we say ‘this is what we do.’ It’s just when we can do it, we do it. A lot of them really need it.
Navajo Veterans Are Often Forgotten
Anthony said he has been helping Kinsel since 2020. Although the Navajo Code Talkers are celebrated, Anthony said they are often forgotten, as are many Navajo Nation veterans. He said no one keeps track of how Code Talkers are doing and what they need.
“When we met John, he always needed wood,” Anthony said. “He still burns wood. His family is traditional too, so they always burn firewood. I think that’s the reason for his long drive, because he always says his prayers.
Ronald Kinsel said his father had been promised for three Navajo Nation administrations that he would get help. He said there have been Navajo politicians who have used veterans’ issues and the Navajo Code Talkers as a way to get into the position they are in now, and he’s had enough.
The office of the Navajo Nation President recently announced that $50 million from the American Recovery Plan Act will go towards veterans housing. In May, the Council of the Navajo Nation approved legislation allocating $29 million to build and operate a 60-bed nursing home for veterans, to be named the Navajo Warriors Home. President Jonathan Nez signed this measure. The new facility will serve as the Navajo Nation’s first-ever retirement home dedicated to Navajo veterans.
“They sent in their staff and all they did was take down a list of renovations that needed to be done,” Ronald Kinsel said. “My father is not the only one, there are several other widows who have problems like us. We are still the stepping stone to where they are and the Navajo Code Talkers have been forgotten.
But through all those broken promises, Ronald said his father remained strong, even after they both caught COVID-19. He credits his father’s endurance to the running and walking he did in his youth.
By age 5, his father traveled long distances to fetch his horses and ran a lot to the point that even his fellow Code Talkers admired his dedication. John’s photo was part of the first Navajo Code Talkers 29K, an event created to honor the original 29 Code Talkers..
“I only wear this shirt on special occasions,” Ronald said proudly.
“It’s Ours Now”
The goal now is to stop the leaks from the roof and make it at least winter-ready.
Anthony said that when he is at John’s he is impressed by the beauty, especially when the sun hits the rocks. He said John likes to sit outside the cabin and tell stories when he’s there.
“He’s a super funny guy,” Anthony said. “He’s really good at telling things seriously, and then he’s got a punch line.”
Navajo elders and their quality of life are always on Anthony’s mind, and he believes that instead of paying lip service to Navajo politicians, these leaders should take responsibility for actually helping, not just elders , but everyone.
Now, with the Navajo elections, Anthony doesn’t see anyone trying to help, and he thinks it’s up to the community as a collective to address these issues.
“The way I see it is that we can do a lot together,” Anthony said. “It’s up to us now. With all these elections going on, personally I don’t see anyone intervening. They just go with the motion to be in this position just to be in this position, but not act. He there are a lot of people at the grassroots level who have more impact than anyone in these leadership positions.”
As the son of a mother who is a Vietnam veteran, Anthony has seen how Navajo veterans are abused and forgotten. Her mother served in the Marines and she is on the waiting list for housing or assistance. He said that because she is female, some people don’t believe she is a Vietnam veteran, even though she has her discharge papers and rank insignia as a sergeant.
“Of the parents on my mother’s side, 90% are veterans,” Anthony said. “They don’t have the quality of life they deserve. Our loved ones who served like my mom or like John shouldn’t have to worry about that stuff. It shouldn’t be our parents or our grandparents. -parents who are struggling. They should be enjoying life and not having to worry about being cold, having a roof over their heads or not having food.”
Anthony asks for donations to pay for supplies for John’s roof and he also invites volunteers to help. To donate, go to paypal.me/chizhforcheii. Follow Anthony on Twitter @Loren_Anthony_
Arlyssa Becenti covers Native Affairs for the Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to [email protected].
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