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Legacy of code talkers still endures decades later

Native Americans from at least 37 tribes were represented in the U.S. military during World War I and World War II – numbering in the tens of thousands. Each service member has a story, but it’s the legacy of the code talkers that continues to fascinate.

It makes sense, as the code talkers program is one of the most creative and uniquely Native American military contributions. Code talkers numbered in the hundreds, from about 420 Navajo, to tribes that had as few as two members in the program. The code talkers assisted U.S. Armed Forces through the wars by transmitting secret communications during military battles and campaigns using tribal languages. It was a code system that was never broken and helped save the lives of countless Americans and allies.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) took note of their influence and the public’s ongoing interest during an online event May 19. Author, anthropologist and historian William C. Meadows of Missouri State University, and Alexandra Harris, NMAI senior editor and coauthor of “Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces” hosted the event.

Harris said one of the great ironies of the success of the code talkers is that at the time the program began in World War I, the U.S. military was intensely targeting Indian boarding schools for recruitment. But many of the superintendents of the schools were actively trying to erase Native languages, often with harsh punishments if students were caught speaking in their tongue. And yet it is precisely those Native languages that made the code talkers program possible at all, she said. About one-third of recruits at the time were not considered U.S. citizens either.

Native American code talkers still capture the public’s imagination and the focus of researchers to this day. (Image via NMAI collection)

Problem solvers

While many tribes and Native languages were represented among the code talkers – it’s the Navajo who are the most famous with the largest representation. The Navajo are also credited for helping the U.S. and its allies win the Pacific campaign.

“There was a need for secure and immediate communications,” Meadows said. “It was needed to solve a pressing issue at the time.”

The Germans were compromising U.S. military communications. Phone lines could be tapped. One in four runners carrying messages were captured or killed. Other methods of communication were too slow or too hard to decode, Meadows explained.

The code talkers used specialized words or expressions for military items, usually based on animals or everyday life. For example, in Choctaw, “tushka chipota,” means “warrior soldier,” and was code for “soldier.” In Navajo, “atsa” means “eagle” and was code for “transport plane.” In Hopi, “paaki” means “houses on water,” which was code for “ship.” And in Comanche “wakaree’e” means “turtle,” which was code for “tank.”

“It worked because to the Germans it was an obscure language, largely unwritten and not based on mathematical code principals, not based on European languages or syntax, and harder to compare for similarities,” Meadows said.

Meadows has written five books about Native American veterans – his latest is “The First Code Talkers: Native American Communicators in World War I.” He’s studied code talkers since 1989 and has also been an advocate for their federal recognition, helping to pass the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008.

Some of the earliest documented code talkers were Ho-Chunk, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Choctaw, Cherokee Nation, Osage Nation and Sioux and Comanche Nation. In World War II, the Oneida Chippewa, Comanche, Meskwaki, Hopi and Navajo emerged in the program. There were many others. Chester Nez was the last of an original 29 Navajo code talkers. He died in 2014.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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