Word Power: How Code Talkers Helped to Win Wars
By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2013 Over the static of crackling radios and phone lines, a little-known group of dedicated Native American warriors joined the call to arms in both world wars with what would prove to be among the United States’ most powerful weapons: language.
Known as Code Talkers, Native Americans learned early on the advantages of their tribal tongues, using indecipherable messages to confuse the enemy and bring combat victory to the United States. The code talker mission remained classified for decades after World War II.
In observance of National Native American Heritage Month, the collaboration between the Defense Department’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity and the Smithsonian Institution recently brought “Native Words, Native Warriors” to the Pentagon for a two-day exhibit.
Developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the 15-panel display includes writing, images and videos depicting battlefield experiences and telling the remarkable story of a dozen tribes who offered their language in support of the U.S. military.
“The displays really tell the personal contribution that each of the Code Talkers made with each other as a team,” said Keevin Lewis, National Museum of the American Indian outreach coordinator.
“Navajo Code Talkers … created a code that was within the Navajo language -- so even another Navajo speaker would not be able to determine what was being talked about,” Lewis said.
Others tribes, he said, also coded their languages, and others used original form, though typically most languages were not written. Lewis said the U.S. government surprisingly soon recognized many native languages, despite the fact that in reservation boarding schools, many Native American children were instead encouraged to speak English.
“It's strange, but growing up as a child, I was forbidden to speak my native language at school,” said Charles Chibitty, a Comanche Code Talker with the U.S. Army. “Later, my country asked me to. My language helped win the war, and that makes me very proud -- very proud.”
According to the Smithsonian’s website, although the United States did not consider American Indians citizens until as late as 1924, the military first enlisted American Indians to relay messages in their native languages during World War I. The Navajo language, among other Native American tongues, became formalized and recognized as a program which expanded during World War II.
Soldiers from the Comanche, Meskwaki, Sioux, Crow, Hopi and Cree nations, among others, took part in the effort, said Lewis, adding that out of more than 500 tribes, each with distinct languages, about 200 to 250 dialects remain in use today.
One display video depicts the Marines, who used Navajo language to create their code in 1942. As noted in the narration, “the encoded messages proved to be a fast, accurate and indecipherable-to-the-enemy alternative, which suited the demands of the battlefield better than the painfully slow military devices that had been standard.”
The National Museum of the American Indian is one of 18 museums within the Smithsonian Institution and has affiliate locations at the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., the National Museum on the mall in Washington, D.C., and in the lower Manhattan region of New York.
“To have the Smithsonian recognize this accomplishment is remarkable,” Lewis said.
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleAFPS)