The Navajo Code Talkers
The Navajo code talkers
Despite their ill fate during the colonization of Native America by the ever-expanding United States in the 19th century,
the Navajo took active part both in World War I and World War II. They volunteered for service and fought in overseas battles,
while the women worked for the Red Cross on the Navajo Reservation.
In World War II, the 3,600 Navajo who fought for their country represented the highest proportion of any ethnicity in the US
military. Although the majority of them fought on the battlefields as ordinary servicemen, a small group was selected
to be used in military communications with the aim of transmitting messages in a form that was not decipherable
for the Japanese decoders.
The Navajo language was an excellent choice for the task, since there were no Navajo living outside of the United States and
the language has never been studied by ethno-linguists. Prior to World War II, no known German or Japanese scientist
studied the Navajo language. Moreover, the complex syntax of the language, paired with its elusive pronunciation provided
a reliable protection against the Japanese decoders. In most cases, the decoders who were overhearing the transmissions were
not even able to write down what they heard, not to speak of deciphering it.
Japanese tourists today (2002)
in Navajo country
After the war ended, the Navajo Code Talkers were forgotten and the majority of the general population knew very little
about them. It was only in July 2001, more than half a century after the end of the war, the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers
who developed the code were given the The Congressional Medal for Meritorius Service in Communications during World War II in Washington, DC. Only 5 of them were still alive.
A few months later, the remaining 400 Navajo Code Talkers received the Silver Congressional Medal of Honor in Window Rock, AZ.
Unfortunately, most of them did not live to see the recognition.
Today, the Navajo Code Talkers are becoming sort of a celebrity. Obviously, this is motivated by the ethnic and gender
rights movements so fashinoble in the last decade. As part of this move, there are at least two movies coming out that
involve Navajo Code Talkers. Although it is disheartening that recognition comes as a response not to
achievement but political necessity and fashion, perhaps we should be glad that there is recognition at all.
The Navajo Code Talkers, by Stephen Bekes
"Not surprisingly, American Indians compiled a well-known chapter in this story. As Code Talkers in the South Pacific, they used the Navajo language
as part of a code which baffled the Japanese. To this day, the Code Talkers are honored men within Navajo society." (David Edmunds, ed. American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity, 1980.)
"Unless sufficient funds of at least $280 million is appropriated for the nutrition programs, I will be standing there, barring the door of the mealsite, and telling the
Navajo Code Talker, Johnny Who Got a Zero and the others that their medals don't count anymore ... our country forgot. I actually have some of the few surviving
Navajo Code Talkers participating in my mealsites and for the benefit of the very young, these were Indian servicemen. The enemy had been very successful in
breaking all of our codes and our orders on radios were being interpreted so they put a Navajo on this end and a Navajo on that end and they spoke their native language
and the Japanese could not break the code. They still have little uniforms and little hats and they dress up and walk in every parade that we have in our part of the
country, and they are still very proud of what they contributed to their country ..." (Oversight Hearing on the Older American Nutrition Programs:
Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources, 1979).
"Is it worth anything to this Subcommittee that there are over 10,000 Navajo veterans, dead and alive, who have fought to defend this country and its
values in Vietnam, Korea, and World War II? We also risked our lives as code-talkers for the U.S. Marines. We supplied many of the people who fought on the
battle-fields, manned arsenals, defense plants and who put together materials of war in the defense of the U.S." (Partition of Navajo and Hopi 1882 Reservation:
Hearings before the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 1972.)
"The United States and Navajo Nation must not and cannot ever forget the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The Navajo Code Talkers used the Navajo
language in code form to enable the United States Armed Forces in the Pacific to communicate vital military information which resulted in a major military
victory for the United States." (Indian Veterans: Hearing Before the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, 1972.)
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