The Marine Toys for Tots Native American Program

The United States Marine Corps and the Navajo Nation have had a special relationship since the “Code Talkers” of World War II fame.  In 1980, Mobilization Training Unit (MTU) CA-16 (Los Angeles Public Affairs), the original 1947 Toys for Tots unit, took on the responsibility of collecting, transporting, and distributing toys to the Navajo Nation and later to other Native American tribes.  Over the years, the MTU grew smaller and was eventually disbanded.  At that time, the mission was taken over and conducted by the Toys for Tots Native American Program; a Local Community Organization (LCO) based in Laguna Niguel, California, and consisted of two former MTU CA-16 Marine Corps Officers.  This organization works under the direction of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation in support of the United States Marine Corps. 

A traditional Toys for Tots program involves the collection of toys in a community, and the distribution of those toys to disadvantaged children in that same community.  Because there were no large population centers near the Navajo Nation that could support a traditional toy program, the Navajo Toys for Tots Program was started in order to provide needed toys to more than 60,000 (1990 census) Navajo children.  The Navajo Nation is approximately 25,000 square miles and nearly as large in size as Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New Hampshire combined. The Navajo Reservation is located mostly in Arizona and New Mexico with a small portion extending into Colorado and Utah.  In 1997 the name of the program was changed from the Navajo Toys for Tots to the Native American Toys for Tots because of the addition of the children on the Ramah Navajo (NM), Hopi (AZ), White Mountain Apache (AZ) and Acoma (NM) Reservations as toy recipients, who are the traditional neighbors of the Navajo.  In the ensuing years, the following reservations were added to the program:  San Carlos Apache (AZ - 2001); Hualapai (AZ - 2002); Pascua Yaqui (AZ - 2003); Zuni (NM - 2004); Tohono O’odham (AZ - 2004); Ely Shoshone (NV - 2005); Duckwater Shoshone (NV - 2005); Gila River/groups (AZ - 2006);  Salt River/groups (AZ - 2006); Colorado River Indian Tribes (AZ - 2007); and Chemehuevi (CA - 2011).  The Native American Toys for Tots Program has provided countless toys and books to the reservations for over 34 years, and actively supports the First Lady of the Navajo Nation with the Navajo Literacy Program.

The Toys for Tots Native American Program is unique in that it is the only Toys for Tots Program whose primary mission is to move toys out of the toy collection area, and reach out to disadvantaged Native American children on their Reservations.  This involved the collection of toys, primarily in California; the transportation of the toys to various Native American Reservations, primarily in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada; and the distribution of the toys, with the assistance of the various Reservation Police Departments, to Native American children.  Toys have also been distributed to tribes in Wyoming, Oklahoma, California, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, and Minnesota through a close working relationship with the Walking Shield Organization and through other Toys for Tots Coordinators.

This year marks the “35th” Christmas that the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Native American Program will deliver toys and books to the Reservations.  For Christmas 2014, toys will be distributed to Navajo, Ramah Navajo, Hopi, White Mountain Apache, San Carlos Apache, Hualapai, Pascua Yaqui, Zuni, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Chemehuevi, Ak-Chin, and other Native American children on their reservations.  The children served by the Native American Toys for Tots Program are some of the most underprivileged children in our country.  Many of them are living on Reservations which are home to some of the worst poverty in the world and in deficient housing with no plumbing, sewer, or septic.

When this Program first started there were very few toys available for distribution on the Reservations.  Participating Reservation Police Departments sent many volunteers and vehicles to California to pick up the toys collected in California for their Reservations.  Each year we would collect more toys, but never as many as we would have liked.  At present the Toys for Tots Foundation is providing thousands of toys to the Native American Program, and shipping the toys directly to the Reservations.  This means that now only a few police personnel need to travel to California to pick up toys.  For Christmas 2013, we distributed over 181,000 toys to over 84,000 Native American Children.   In addition, Toys for Tots Coordinators in Montana, Nevada, and South Dakota distributed toys to an additional 27,000 Native American Children.  This would not have been possible without the strong support of the Toys for Tots Foundation.

The Arizona National Guard has been instrumental in the past by providing military trucks, troops and the use of their facility at Camp Navajo, Bellemont, AZ.  They also provide ammunition bunkers for the storage of some of our toys. 

Each year at Christmas time Marines help to distribute toys and books on one or more of the participating Reservations.  In 2012, Marines helped the President and First Lady of the Navajo Nation pass out toys to children in Tuba City (Navajo Nation).  LtCol Tagni was honored to be the Grand Marshal in the annual Tuba City Toys for Tots Christmas Parade, and toys were passed out to children along the parade route.  Marines also helped with the distribution of toys on the Hopi Reservation.  This year (2014) we plan to visit the Zuni and Ramah Navajo Reservations in New Mexico.

In June of 2002, Lieutenant General Matthew Cooper (then President & CEO of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation), and the Toys for Tots Foundation recognized the Toys for Tots Native American Program as one of the elite programs in the country, and also as the 2001 Local Community Organization of the year.

Cable Television Station NNTV-5 (Navajo Cable Station) made a TV documentary about the Toys for Tots Native American Program in both 2002 and 2003.

Native American Program

Peter C. Tagni, Lieutenant Colonel, USMCR (Ret)
Coordinator, Toys for Tots Native American Program
Laguna Niguel, California
Telephone # 949-364-5531

For donations by check, mail checks made payable to Marine Toys for Tots Foundation to:

Lt Col Peter Tagni
Coordinator, Toys for Tots Native American Program
PO Box 3768
Mission Viejo, CA 92690