Indigenous Codes

The use of Native Americans in WWI and WWII as code talkers. Explain how the use of American Indians (Choctaw Osage, Comanche and Navajo) native languages in the wars allowed for the USA to gain the advantage over the enemy. How did life change for American Indians after the wars because of this acknowledgement? How did the military, society and the Indian communities/reservations respond to the use of the native languages in the wars? Did anything change?

From ABC-CLIO’s The American Mosaic: The American Indian Experience website

Topic Center: Native American Participation in World War II

Despite hundreds of years of victimization by the U.S. government and military, Native Americans contributed both in battle and on the home front during World War II.

Although they were considered citizens under the 1924 Snyder Act and thus eligible for the draft, more than 44,000 Native American men took it upon themselves to volunteer for military serviceóapproximately 12.5 percent of the entire Native American population. Among certain tribes, including the Chippewa and Navajo, this percentage was significantly higher. The Iroquois even instituted their own draft. Many of these volunteers, however, were rejected because of ill health and illiteracy. Those who were accepted served in integrated units in both the European and Pacific theaters.

Perhaps the most valuable Native American contribution to the American war effort came from a group of 420 Navajos known as Code Talkers. Philip Johnston, a civil engineer and the son of white missionaries, had grown up speaking Navajo and saw its potential as a military code. Johnston approached Major General Clayton B. Vogel and, after a demonstration, Vogel petitioned for authorization to begin a training program. This was not the first military use of Native American languages: during World War I, Choctaw Indians in Company D, 141st U.S. Infantry had transmitted messages using their native tongue. The Code Talkers, however, were more thoroughly trained and widely utilized. The first 30 recruits, organized into the 382nd Platoon of the U.S. Marine Corps, began training at Camp Elliot, California in 1942.

Certain limitations needed to be overcome to create a viable code. Because the Navajo language did not include words for modern weapons and tactics, Code Talkers had to find creative analogues. Thus, different models of aircraft became different bird species, vessels were designated by various types of fish, commanding officers were referred to as chiefs, grenades were called potatoes, and fortifications were cliff dwellings. Physical characteristics were used to denote important individuals and locations. Adolf Hitler was “Mustache Smeller,” Benito Mussolini was “Big Gourd Chin,” Africa was “Blackie,” and the United States was “Out Mother.” An alphabetic cipher was also created by using any of three, and later eight, Navajo words to designate each letter of the alphabet. The code was memorized so that it did not need to be written down.

The adaptable and ever-changing code that emerged was one of the few that remained unbroken until it was declassified in 1968. In recognition of the Navajos service, President Ronald Reagan declared August 14, 1982 “National Code Talkers Day.”

Native Americans also made significant contributions on the home front. Approximately 38,000 men and 12,000 women left reservations to contribute their labor to the war effort. The Fort Wingate Ordinance Depot in New Mexico and the Naval Supply Depot in Utah were both constructed by Native Americans. Many women volunteered their time to humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and the Women’s Volunteer Service. Despite their economically disadvantaged status, Native Americans purchased some $50 million in war bonds. Native Americans also gave the federal government access to their reservations’ mineral, agricultural, and lumber resources.

As was the case with other minority groups, the wartime contributions of Native Americans remain largely unappreciated. Like other minority servicemen, Native American soldiers were under-recognized and the target of racism within the military. At home, the government sometimes misused and over-extended tribal resources. This did not, however, stop some 150,000 Native American men and women from giving their time, money, and even their lives to the country that had mistreated them for so many generations.


Copyright 2018 ABC-CLIO, LLC

This content may be used for non-commercial, course and research purposes only.

MLA Citation:
“Native American Participation in World War Ii.” The American Mosaic: The American Indian Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018, Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

From ABC-CLIO’s The American Mosaic: The American Indian Experience website

Navajo Code Talkers

Navajo Code Talkers was a special program of the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II, when Navajos were used to develop and implement one of the few unbroken codes in history. There was some historical precedent for the use of Native Americans speaking their language as a code in modern combat. Both the Canadian and U.S. armies had limited success with such efforts in World War I, most notably the U.S. experiment with the Choctaws of Company D, 141st Infantry. One dilemma was that Native American languages lacked such combat-specific words as machine gun or grenade.

Origins of the Operation

Philip Johnston, the son of missionaries, grew up speaking Navajo and conceived an unbreakable military code based upon it. Due to the tonal nature of Navajo speech, words changed meaning based upon pitch and inflection. The language was largely unwritten and not a subject of linguistic study. Johnston, a civil engineer in Los Angeles, approached Maj. Gen. Clayton B. Vogel of the Marine Corps with his idea and arranged a demonstration. Impressed, Vogel requested authorization to recruit 200 Navajos for code duty. Washington granted permission for 30 men to begin a pilot program.

In April 1942, the new 382 Platoon began regular basic training at Camp Elliot, California. Their training differed in one respect from that of other marines. They had to create a new military code. This was complicated by the fact that any code had to account for the different dialects on the Navajo reservation. Furthermore, the code had to be memorized, since nothing could be written down for fear of capture. Using the familiar, the Navajos based the code on nature as a reference. Birds indicated planes, a buzzard was a bomber, and fish denoted types of ships.

The Code

Descriptive words particular to Navajo life described other military details. The commanding officer became war chief, and a fortification was a cliff dwelling. Countries and leaders were christened by physical characteristics. Africa was “Blackie,” the United States was “Our Mother,” Adolf Hitler became “Mustache Smeller,” and Benito Mussolini was “Big Gourd Chin.” The originators also made up their own expressions and played word games. “District” became “deer,” “ice” meant “strict,” and “potato” indicated “grenades.” If the enemy ever did begin to decipher the code, the Navajos could switch to an alphabetic cipher. In this case, the first letter of the English translation of a Navajo word corresponded to a letter. To add further confusion, any of three words, or later eight, could be used for each letter. For example, A could be represented by the Navajo words for ant, apple, or ax. Far from static, the code was reviewed before invasions and could be modified as necessary.

When the code was completed, naval intelligence spent three weeks trying to break it and failed to decipher a single message. White recruits familiar with Navajo could not deal with everyday conversational Navajo, and even untrained Navajos, although they might pick up words, could not break the code. Code Talkers worked with all six marine divisions in the Pacific and served with distinction on the islands of Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Guadalcanal. The code was finally declassified in 1968, and President Ronald Reagan declared August 14, 1982 National Code Talkers Day to recognize the service of the 420 Code Talkers.

Robert Gardner

Copyright 2018 ABC-CLIO, LLC

This content may be used for non-commercial, course and research purposes only.

MLA Citation:

Gardner, Robert. “Navajo Code Talkers.” The American Mosaic: The American Indian Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018, Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

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