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The Power of Words, the Power of Belonging: What the Navajo Code Talkers Taught Me

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The following is a guest post by Nathan Cross, VHP Archivist and primary author of VHP’s Navajo Code Talkers LibGuide.

The Veterans History Project (VHP) is pleased to announce a new resource designed to introduce VHP’s holdings related to the veterans known as Navajo Code Talkers. These veterans, Native Americans who served in the Pacific Theater during WWII, came to be known as “Code Talkers” due to their development and use of a military code based on the Navajo language. With more than 20 Code Talkers’ oral history interviews in the VHP archive, these collections represent a unique strength of VHP’s holdings, and we hope that our new LibGuide will help to bring their stories to life for you.

Screenshot of the Navajo Code Talker LibGuide.
Screenshot from the new Navajo Code Talkers LibGuide.

The Code Talkers’ stories capture the imagination due to the irony that is central to their experience. Most of them grew up speaking the Navajo language at home, until they attended government-run boarding schools where they were commanded to speak only in English, and many reported being shamed and punished for speaking their native language. Then in 1942, the same government that tried to erase their knowledge of their Native language asked them to use it at war. Teddy Draper summed up this irony in his oral history interview with Carol Fleming, when he said “my mind went back to the past–first they told me not to speak Navajo, but now they want me to speak Navajo in combat” (Video interview, 30:03).

In other words, as children they were treated by wider American society as if they didn’t really belong unless they learned to communicate using the “correct” words. This attempt at forced assimilation did not succeed in making them forget their Native language, and we should be thankful that it failed. Despite this treatment–and despite indigenous peoples’ history of persecution and broken trust at the hands of the U.S. government–after Pearl Harbor Navajos and other Native Americans volunteered for the military in huge numbers.

Screenshot of man from his oral history interview. Man is wearing a yellow shirt and red hat against a blue background.
Screenshot from the Keith Little oral history interview. Keith Little Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/28922.

They offered to serve for a variety of reasons–a sense of duty, the mystique of the Marine Corps, economic opportunities, cultural values, or a yearning for adventure–or from some combination of these factors. But whatever their precise individual motivations, their willingness to enlist underlines the fact that they believed they belonged to the community that is the United States, even if the U.S. government and other Americans did not always respect these bonds of attachment. Like many of the Code Talkers, Keith Little remembered how he and his classmates were motivated to join the military and do their part by the attack on Pearl Harbor.  “I was a 15-year-old kid at the time, and we all swore that we were going to join the Army or the Navy…. I don’t know what you’d call it. Maybe it’s love for your country or patriotism — you think about your family – how will they be?” (Video interview, Part 2, 1:06)

After enlisting, the Code Talkers played a key role in America’s victory in World War II by providing a secure and efficient means of encrypted communication. The famous code that they developed was a bilingual code – the speaker had to be completely comfortable in both the Navajo and English languages.  It was much faster than previous encryption methods; a three-line message that would have taken 30 minutes to send using the old shackle codes (cryptographic systems wherein numbers are substituted for letters) could be encoded, transmitted, and decoded by Navajo Code Talkers in 20 seconds. And the Japanese–despite capturing a Navajo soldier in the Philippines and torturing him mercilessly–never broke it (Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon, pp. 119-121).

Their bilingual code is an apt metaphor for how they had learned to navigate living in both Native and wider American cultural environments. In their VHP interviews, most of the Code Talkers report that they got along well with their fellow Marines from other ethnic backgrounds, and indeed formed close bonds with many of their comrades. Not all welcomed them, however, and several remember wearing their uniforms while on leave to avoid getting kicked out of bars and restaurants.

Their status as war veterans did not protect them from discrimination when they got home, either. When Chester Nez returned home, he had to stop — while still in his Marine uniform — at a Bureau of Indian Affairs office to get a mandatory identification card, where a bureaucrat insulted him by telling him “you’re still not a full citizen, you know” (Chester Nez and Judith Avila, Code Talker, pg. 217). Navajos and other Native Americans were denied the right to vote in Arizona until 1948, in New Mexico until 1953, and in Utah until 1957.

The Code Talkers’ duties during the war often meant that the messages they sent by radio or telephone brought death to the enemy. Many Marine units used the Navajo Code to send their most time-sensitive messages – attack orders, calls for artillery fire, and requests for airstrikes.

Screenshot of man during oral history interview, showing man sitting on a couch in uniform.
Screenshot from the Samuel Holiday oral history interview. Samuel Holiday Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/52527.

In his biography Under the Eagle, Samuel Holiday tells the story of the day on Saipan when he called in an artillery strike on a Japanese artillery battery. Two days after calling in the strike, Holiday and his fellow Marines walked through the position where the Japanese battery had been, and he vividly remembers the carnage and destruction he saw there, “Looking at them really made me feel sad. I wondered how many people we were killing because of the code talkers’ work…. I remembered what my mother said about not killing anything without purpose. This meant not even killing a lizard or a plant and here we were killing human beings. It was sickening, but it was war so we moved on” (Under the Eagle, p. 138).

Some of the Code Talkers reflected in later years on this power of their words to bring death, and how it affected their post-war lives. Many of them recounted struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress after war’s end. In his VHP interview, Holiday was very open about the emotional impacts of seeing so much death and suffering, and revealed how much he had been helped by traditional Navajo healing ceremonies (Video interview, 1:06:40). Teddy Draper, John Kinsel, Chester Nez, and Bill Toledo also testified to the effectiveness of healing ceremonies in alleviating their post-traumatic stress symptoms.

The Navajos have traditionally held healing ceremonies for combat veterans during the N’daa, also called Enemy Way ceremonies. These ceremonies have been powerful and effective for so many veterans partly due to the fact that they are in some ways rituals of reintegration — they are affirmations of belonging. The loss of belonging is often the most powerful loss a veteran experiences upon leaving the military, and this loss of attachments can amplify the effects of post-traumatic stress. Author and journalist Sebastian Junger describes this wonderfully in his book Tribe, where he details the powerful bonds that are formed in the military, and how disorienting and devastating it can be when these bonds are ripped away. With Enemy Way healing ceremonies, there is recognition that the veteran has been through something traumatic, but the ceremony–which often involves entire extended families and friends–is designed in part to send the message that “you are home, you are loved, you belong here with us.”

Black and white photo of Marines heading to a beach.
A wave of charging Fourth Division Marines begin an attack from the beach at Iwo Jima. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

Approximately 400 Navajo men served as Code Talkers in the Marine Corps during World War II. This makes them a tiny subsection of the millions of American veterans of that war. And they are also a small fraction of the large number of Native Americans who served. Some have suggested that to focus on such a small group is unseemly, as it causes us to ignore the contributions of all those who served in other roles. These critics have a point – as a veteran myself, I believe all veterans are deserving of recognition and honor. The purpose in producing our LibGuide on the Code Talkers was not to elevate these veterans above others, however, but rather to provide them a platform to tell us–in their own words–what their experiences have to teach us about American society, about the experience of war, and about ourselves.

Many of them joined together in the 1970s to form the Navajo Code Talkers Association, and as part of this organization they became involved in speaking to people around America about their experiences during World War II. Their words–and more importantly, their example–have helped me gain a deeper understanding of what patriotism means. The patriotism that the Code Talkers exemplified was not about celebrating one’s country because of the benefits and prestige attached to belonging to that country–but rather it was about a willingness to serve one’s community.

Their experiences have also shown me the power of words to heal, and to unite. Maybe “unite” is too optimistic, but at the very least their power to build understanding, to help us see another person as human, as not so very different from ourselves, despite different backgrounds and cultures. Their success is a vivid example of how our society’s diversity is a source of strength – a language that boarding schools had tried to eliminate ended up saving countless American lives on the blood-soaked battlefields of the Pacific.

As I write this today I am torn between a feeling of sadness–there are only four Navajo Code Talkers still living, including Thomas Begay and John Kinsel–and a feeling of gratitude for what they did, and for having had the opportunity to hear so many of their stories. Most of them may be gone, but they have left us with their wisdom, their example, and their stories – stories of an unbroken code and an unbreakable spirit.

Special thanks to all those who made this LibGuide possible, including Megan Harris, Justina Moloney, Rachel Mears, Judith Gray, John Fenn, Stephanie Hall, and Betsy Fulford.

Comments (3)

  1. The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf’s wonderful book “Language Thought and Reality” speaks of two-tense Hopi, all things and events are “-ing”; becoming, effluent into an increasingly dynamic reality, or have already become. No pigeon-holing, no bureaucracy to suffocate what is or any mental process–thinking or myth-ing. Down with tomorrow and down with machines! Let us live in today with all its joy and sorrow!

  2. My preceding comment re: Hopi metaphysics, leads me to propose a Native American DSM-NA in which all the ways that white men are crazy can be cataloged, perhaps via sand-painting and relevant treatment plans be implemented in smoke lodges. It’s not too late! After all, there is no tomorrow!

  3. This collection is both fascinating and heartbreaking in that it brings to light the heroism of Native Americans, their commitment to patriotism and the discrimination they, shamefully, had to endure. Also fascinating to learn about is how their traditions of oral history and storytelling in their culture prepared them for the memorization necessary to learn how to carry out their code talking contributions to our country’s wartime initiatives. Interesting that oral history was and is important to their culture, the war effort and, now, our understanding of the remarkable lives they led and the important contributions they made. The power of oral history is once again validated and the oral histories in the VHP remain as rich and important mediums to learn about and reflect on the roles veterans played as support of our freedoms and ideals. Wonderful resources all!

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