Navajo Code Talker John Kinsel, Sr., will be getting a new roof for the 70-year-old cabin he built in Lukachukai.
Kinsel, who is 105, is one of three remaining Navajo Code Talkers and has been living with an often-patched roof that leaked. The Arizona Republic wrote about his situation and about efforts by the Navajo grassroots organization Chizh for Cheii to help rebuild the roof.
The group has so far received more than $4,800 in donations and will start work within a month at the latest.
“I never thought it would turn out to be such a big support and it's still making waves,” said Loren Anthony, the group's founder. “It’s pretty cool to open that resource window that wasn’t there before.”
Chizh for Cheii was originally formed a decade ago to help supply wood for elders on the Navajo Nation, and has also worked with volunteers to help elders with renovations to their homes. Anthony said he was overwhelmed by the love and support the group received online to help Kinsel.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Kinsel was visited by Cecilia Sandoval, national vice commander of the National American Indian Veterans, who delivered an American Spirit Award Kinsel was selected to receive but couldn’t travel to accept.
The American Spirit Award was established by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans and is given to individuals and organizations who are seen as a reflection of the values and spirit of those who served during World War II.
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Sandoval said she was asked to contact Kinsel to invite him to the event in June to receive the award, but he and his son and primary caregiver, Ronald Kinsel, were unable to travel. Sandoval accepted the award on Kinsel’s behalf.
“The award was established by the war museum in New Orleans to honor all World War II veterans that are still alive, and there are very few of them,” said Sandoval. “Navajo Code Talkers were very essential during the war with the language, that’s why they were honored.”
The Code Talkers used their Navajo language to develop a code during World War II, allowing the U.S. military to communicate without giving away any sensitive battle information. The code was never broken and the Code Talkers were credited with helping the allied forces win the war.
Sandoval, who is Navajo and originally from Chinle, is a U.S. Air Force Veteran and comes from a family of veterans. Her uncle is the Navajo Code Talker Carl Gorman, who was one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, the men who developed the unbreakable code. Gorman died in 1998.
When presenting Kinsel with his American Spirit Award, Sandoval said she was surprised at how strong and active Kinsel is. She said he was able to hang out with them for a while and enjoy some cake.
“He joked about himself and said ‘Well, I think I’m 101, but I think I’m 105, maybe I’m 150 who knows,’” Sandoval laughed. “He’s a lot of fun. He was very appreciative of the award. It was a nice event.”
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Kinsel's birth year had long been reported as 1921, but Ronald said the family recently confirmed through Catholic records that John was actually born in 1917, making him 105 this year
In pictures and videos taken that day by Anthony, Kinsel is seen dressed in the iconic yellow Navajo Code Talker uniform and red hat. He’s surrounded by family and neighbors. A short time later Anthony made a video and posted it on social media, announcing that Chizh for Cheii had received enough money to start on the roof.
“I am very amazed and appreciative that someone is stepping up,” said Sandoval of Chizh for Cheii. “We have this young man still living in the same house that he built with no plumbing and electrical wiring and that is still very out in the open and not secured. All that needs to be upgraded up to code.”
In an earlier interview, Ronald Kinsel, who himself is an elder, recalled growing up in the cabin, which was built in 1950, and sleeping on sheepskin. Ronald left for Albuquerque Indian School in 1968 and eventually returned home to work in 2000 and to be closer to his parents.
“I’m an educator. All I know is how to teach. Not being a carpenter or having experienced being a carpenter I never really noticed anything. Just recently I started having issues with the wind tearing out the roofing,” said Ronald Kinsel. “I had a nephew that would stop by and use his stapler to staple down whatever it is up there.”
The strong winds in the Navajo Nation start in March and can last well into summer. Most days the unrelenting wind can be blowing up to 50 mph from morning until night, so it was no surprise that the winds were able to tear open an old roof.
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Ronald described the pots and bowls that have been laid out throughout the cabin to catch rainwater, a makeshift fix that has been going on for the last two years. He said he was saving up money to try to get the roof repaired, and at times he was able to find people who were willing to help. But when the pandemic hit, all of the efforts he was making ended.
“It's deteriorating on top,” said Ronald Kinsel. “The wires are exposed and I’m told it's dangerous. I have one light I'm not using because right where the light is that's where the water comes down. Those are the things I have to deal with.”
Anthony and Chizh for Cheii had to extend the time in which they wanted to start on the roof because the volunteers still have wood to distribute. They are also getting price quotes from lumber yards. Currently, they are working overtime to haul wood from their stockpile in Flagstaff to elders across the Navajo Nation.
"If this was the only project then we'd start within the week, my goal was in the next two weeks," said Anthony. "But it depends how things work out because we are still doing our distributions. No more than a month."
As John Kinsel was being presented the American Spirit Award, many of those who attended were elders from the community. Some of them happened to be among the elders that Chizh for Cheii has helped over the years.
“You kind of forget who knows who and a lot of the elders that showed up for John’s thing we’ve helped,” said Anthony. “It was kind of like a big reunion kind of thing. They were happy we are going to be helping out with the roof.”
Anthony said whatever funds are left over from what they received for Kinsel's roof will go toward trying to help another elder who needs roof repairs.
Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Navajo Code Talker John Kinsel will get a new roof with donations