New Navajo Code Talker portrait dedicated

L-R: Three of Bahe Ketchum’s sons – Marvin, Cyrus and Arnold – along with artist Elwyn Shorthair attend the dedication ceremony at Navajo Mountain High School on Oct. 27.

The life and legacy of late Navajo Code Talker Bahe Ketchum was honored at a ceremony at Navajo Mountain High School on Oct. 27. At the event, artist Elwyn Shorthair presented his original portrait of Ketchum to three of Ketchum’s sons and other family members.  

Shorthair’s oil painting was part of an ongoing project by the nonprofit organization Navajo YES to commission artists to paint portraits of World War II Code Talkers to present to family members. The portraits are also reproduced as posters, which are handed out for free at fairs, parades, running races and other events.  

Tom Riggenbach, the executive director of Navajo YES, said the idea originated in 2015 when he decided to organize a Code Talker run on the Navajo Nation and wanted to hand out Code Talker posters at the event.

“We couldn’t find a poster of a Code Talker. So, we thought, I guess we’ll have to make our own. Do it for yourself instead of waiting for someone to bring it to you,” Riggenbach said.

“We never sell the posters. We share them out with anybody and everybody that wants them. At the fairs, we gave out over 1,000 posters. Kids come up from every side, ‘I want a poster, I want a poster!’ It’s really awesome to see all these little kids, and you know they probably don’t even know the story of who these guys are. So, they’re going to go home, and grandma’s going to say, where did you get that? And then the conversation can begin. Grandma can fill them in.”

Several artists have participated in the project since 2015. The portrait of Bahe Ketchum is Shorthair’s fourth Code Talker painting.  

“About two years ago, right as COVID was rearing its ugly head, we got in touch with an artist I’ve known for several years, a young man named Elwyn Shorthair and explained this project to him,” Riggenbach said. “Elwyn jumped on it. He was like, ‘Oh man, it would be amazing, love to do it.'”

Shorthair, 34, is a self-taught artist who has been drawing his whole life and got into painting as a teenager. He started by doing indoor murals, and then began experimenting with oils on canvas around the time Riggenbach contacted him about the Code Talker portrait project. 

Shorthair said each painting takes about 80-100 hours over the course of four or five days.

“I would work all night, sleep half a day, and I’ll just keep going for like 14 hours a day, and I’ll just continue the next day doing it for like four days straight,” he said. “When I finally delivered this painting in Window Rock, it was still drying because I was still working on it that morning.”

Shorthair said he didn’t realize how big the portrait project was until he started posting images of his paintings online. Then, families of Code Talkers started contacting him directly, telling their stories and asking him to paint more portraits.  

“I had family members come to me and tell me a story about the Code Talkers. I was amazed. The family members would just come up to and talk to me. That’s what I really liked the most” about the project, he said.

At the ceremony on Oct. 27, Bahe Ketchum’s son Cyrus said he was proud of the way his father served his country.  

“In all the time we were being raised, he never told us anything about what he’d done,” Cyrus said. “I got into high school during the time that President Reagan was in office. He was the one that declassified the secrecy about the Navajo Code Talkers. When that happened, [Bahe] finally came out and told us that he was one of them. I was really shocked. I think everybody in the family was shocked.” 

After that, Bahe started telling the family stories about how the Code Talkers used the Navajo language to defeat the Japanese. 

“Nowadays it’s kind of fading away, the words that they used. They had a lot of strong meaning behind them. It’s best to go back, you younger ones, go back to learning the Navajo language,” Cyrus said, addressing the Navajo Mountain High School students who attended the ceremony.

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