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Anti-donation law might hinder state funding for Navajo Code Talkers museum

Photograph of Navajo Indian Code Talkers Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo. (U.S. Marine Corps graphic by Lance Cpl. Paley Fenner)

The son of a Navajo Code Talker requested Tuesday the state chip in $25 million for a museum to honor the legendary U.S. Marines whose undecipherable Native language helped turned the tide for America and its allies in World War II.

Regan Hawthorne presented half a dozen renderings of the proposed museum to lawmakers on the interim legislative Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, telling them he is asking both New Mexico and the federal government to each contribute $25 million to build a museum as large as 54,000 square feet.

Although lawmakers didn’t directly address the hefty sum Hawthorne was requesting, they expressed support for a museum that would memorialize the efforts of the Navajos who used their language to confound the Japanese, helping U.S. forces to prevail in the Pacific.

However, a few legislators questioned whether the law barring the state from donating money to a nonprofit would be a barrier to funding.

Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said she was sure it would be.

“I think it is an impediment to what’s being contemplated here,” Brown said. “I believe based on recent legislative activity that it’s pretty clear this is not a direction the New Mexico Legislature can go.”

Two years ago, a group of nonprofits sought state funding, she said, prompting her to say during a hearing that their effort would violate the state constitution. At the same time, a state senator was trying to pass a constitutional amendment to allow nonprofits to receive state funding, she said.

“To me, that was proof positive that it’s not allowable under current law,” Brown said.

Hawthorne said it’s possible the anti-donation clause might bar the state from allocating money to his nonprofit group, though he also suggested it’s not completely certain.

It’s also not clear what kind of conditions and obligations public funding would impose on his organization and the project if the money were approved, Hawthorne said. That made him consider whether the group should try to build the museum with private donations, he said.

“And we still may,” Hawthorne said.

Still, Brown hinted state funding for the museum may not be totally out of the question.

Nonprofits are allowed to receive state money for providing services, she said. But when it comes to capital projects not state-owned, there are issues that must be ironed out by attorneys.

The late state Sen. John Pinto, a Code Talker from Gallup, secured more than $1 million in executive and legislative capital outlay funds to get the museum started in 2019. An intergovernmental agreement to build the museum, which included New Mexico agencies, was formed, Hawthorne said.

State Sen. Harold Pope asked Hawthorne whether he heard about any potential conflicts with the anti-donation clause when the project was first proposed three years ago.

Hawthorn said he did not.

Pope said he has seen the law hinder state financial aid to nonprofits that were helping communities during the coronavirus pandemic and the wildfires.

If the anti-donation clause wasn’t brought up at the project’s outset, then it probably shouldn’t come into play now, although the amount of money Hawthorne is requesting might be rejected, Pope added.

He said New Mexico will do what it can.

“I really want to see this come to fruition, what you’re talking about,” Pope said, “because the story needs to be told.”

There are only three living Code Talkers from the more than 420 who served in World War II, so a museum would be the only way to preserve their legacy, Hawthorne said.

His father, Roy Hawthorne, was a Code Talker, making the pursuit of the museum even closer to his heart.

Regan Hawthorne said about $875,000 remains of the initial capital outlay, and he wants to use that for design, engineering and getting the first concrete slabs laid, and maybe even a couple of walls built, just so the dream can begin to materialize.

The goal is to break ground by Aug. 15, which is Code Talkers Day, he said.

“As long as I am anywhere near the helm of this organization, we’re going to build a museum,” Hawthorne said.


(c) 2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican

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