Navajo Code Talkers Show Language Matters
The importance of teaching and preserving languages was made critically clear during World War II when Navajo Indians from the American Southwest developed a code based on their native language that literally saved thousands of lives in the Pacific Theater. Called Navajo Code Talkers, the Native Americans were recruited after a marine commanding general in the Pacific was convinced by the son of a missionary who had grown up on a reservation of the potential value of a code based on the obscure tongue. Navajo is a complex, unwritten language that has no alphabet or symbols and includes guttural and nasal sounds, voice intonations, and dialects. Hard to speak, it proved to be an invaluable resource, and utterly confused the Japanese, expert cryptologists who cracked the army and navy codes, but never understood marine communications. In fact, no one has ever broken the Navajo code, including Navajos who were not trained as code talkers and other marines.
Sam Billison, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, recently reminisced about his wartime experiences in a fascinating talk co-sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Born in a hogan on a Navajo reservation to a sheep-herder father and rug-weaver mother, he was sent to a US government Indian boarding school at age four. Assimilation of the tribes into an English-speaking American way of life was official policy and the goal of the schools. Native children were forbidden to speak their mother tongue and punished if they did so. As with other code talkers, Billison knew Navajo only because he had learned it at home.
By 1942, the Japanese were breaking all US codes, which had to be changed daily. After a test showed the speed and agility with which they could decipher messages, twenty-nine Navajos, ages 14 to 16, were recruited and told to come up with a code. They realized they needed an alphabet, with 3 or 4 words representing each letter. They also needed to create words that were not part of their language, such as battleship, tank, sergeant, and types of airplanes. Objects that operated in the air were named for birds, those that performed on the ground for animals, and those that travel by sea for fish. Dive-bombers were "humming birds," submarines were "iron fish," France was "beard," and squad was "black street." The dictionary they created and code words for military terms had to be memorized and new words created as the need arose. In 1942, there were about 50,000 Navajo tribe members; about 540 served in the marines with 420 of those trained as code talkers. They talked over telephones and radios and transmitted information about tactics, troop movements, and orders. Deployed on ships, tanks, planes, and in the infantry, code talkers participated in every Pacific operation from 1942 to 1945. An officer exclaimed, "Were it not for the Navajos, the marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
The code talkers work was top secret, even after the war. Billiston explains that upon discharge, they were told to simply say, "I fought with the marines" if questioned about their duties. Their accomplishments were finally recognized in 1968, too late for some, laments Billiston. "Many were gone and had never told their families what they had done." In his case, his parents had already passed on, so never took pride in their son's wartime contribution. After much pressure, in 2001 the code talker's, or their heirs, were awarded Congressional gold or silver medals. Often asked why the Navajos were willing to serve a country that had so mistreated them, Billiston explains, "All native Americans still feel the United States is our country, our mother country, so we fight for it." He credits the GI Bill for his own career trajectory. He went on to earn his doctorate and become an educator. Without it, "I would still be a sheep herder." In fact, he muses, "Who would think that a bunch of sheep herders would create a code that no one in the world could break."#