Blog

Code Talkers

November 24, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The code word for America was our mother Ne-he-mah.”

“I enjoyed serving my country and my people.” - Chester Nez

Protecting our country is an act of honor and bravery. Every one of those citizens who sign up for the arduous task of defending America is worthy of mention. Just within my own life, I have come to listen more closely to those veterans who are familiar to me. And I have discovered that each person contains a wealth of stories, information, humility, kindness and complexity. Soldiers lives are littered with disruption. Constant movement and change juxtaposes the often monotonous routines of the armed forces. I would love to highlight every single one of them. Since this is not feasible, then I will simply say that we are grateful and honored to be Americans. Thank you for your service.

The month of November celebrates two extremely important pieces of American culture: both Veteran's Day and Native American history and heritage. As I have been studying languages for some time, I felt it might be interesting to revisit the Code Talkers. While most of these men have passed away, their legacy is still palpable. In a very short time, they wrote the beginnings of their own language and used it to then create an unbreakable code. This code helped America win both the first and second World Wars.

According to the National Museum of the American Indian, “More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I – about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at the time.” The use of a code dates back to World War I in which 14 Choctaw soldiers helped the U.S. against Germany. Then, in 1941, the U.S. government once again struggled to create encrypted codes safe from enemy eyes. Philip Johnston, son of missionaries and fluent in Navajo, proposed the idea of using the native language to the U.S. Marine Corps. The original program enlisted 29 code talkers who created and memorized the code. There was no written record to ensure that the code would be kept private. Therefore, the men created an alphabetical code based upon common Navajo words so that it could be easily memorized. For example, “[T]he Navajo words 'wol-la-chee' (ant), 'be-la-sana' (apple) and 'tse-nill' (axe) all stood for the letter 'a.' One way to say the word 'Navy' in Navajo code would be 'tsah' (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)." The code talkers were deployed to the Pacific and as the program grew, more than 400 code talkers would join their forces.

The Diné word for warrior is naabaahii. The warrior tradition is an important and respected part of Navajo culture. Chester Nez (a Code Talker from World War II) said that “a warrior is someone who cares for and protects the area that they are from, protect the country” and that he was proud to be a part of this tradition. These warriors created a code that changed the face of the war. The code was kept secret for 23 years and then declassified in 1968. After its declassification, the code talkers were asked for interviews and information. The National Museum of the American Indian reminds us how difficult and complex it may be to understand a soldier's life. They write, “Like all soldiers, Code Talkers carry many memories of their war experiences. Some memories are easy to revisit. Others are very difficult. Some veterans do not really like to discuss these memories, while others can more comfortably recall them. They remember how fierce and dangerous some of the fighting was. Some remember when their fellow soldiers were wounded or killed. They remember the noise and the violence of war. Others recall being prisoners of war. Sometimes they have more pleasant memories of different cultures and places that they had never seen before and probably would never see again. They also remember how their American Indian spirituality was important to them during the war.”

As the generation of Code Talkers fade, it is important to dedicate some time in becoming familiar with the multiple ways in which they served. They bridged two worlds, both Navajo and American, in order to create a better society for all of us. There are many ways to support local veterans, from donations to programs. We can all find ways in which to serve those who have best served us.

For more on the code talkers, visit the National Museum of American Indians: http://www.nmai.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter4.html

To find the Navajo Code Talkers dictionary, visit: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/n/navajo-code-talker-dictionary.html