As a teacher of literature for some 35 years, I was very aware of the power of language to describe and to communicate both simple and difficult ideas. Language is uniquely tied up with who we are as human beings. It names things, giving us control over them in many different ways. This reality is at the core of the Native American Code Talker’s story.
It is wrapped in an irony too. For, the languages of the Native Americans were threatened by our own governmental policies from the end of the Indian Wars in 1891 with the massacre at Wounded Knee and the Reservation policies that followed. Indian youth were required to go to reservation schools where there was a systematic effort to erase Native American languages, in order to “acculturate” Native Americans into American society. And it proved to be quite effective in removing that unique part of cultural identity from the Native Peoples.
Thankfully, it was not complete.
WWII came along and the importance of those languages was suddenly seen as an asset for the American military efforts in both the European and Pacific Theaters. Native Americans have always, ironically, served in the U.S. military at higher rates per capita than any other ethnic group in the United States, but now, one of the most elemental and important characteristics of their cultural identities was being called upon to help us in the war effort to defeat the dictatorial powers of German Nazism and Japanese Imperialism.
This video introduces us to just one of the Navajo Code Talkers who served with the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific during WWII. His name is Roy Hawthorne. The video is filmed at the memorial to the Navajo Code Talkers at Window Rock on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Because of their ultimate importance to the success of battles, etc. these Code Talkers were often the first ashore and the last to leave.
Listen to his brief story, but listen even more to the sound of his ancient and beautiful language. The Japanese were never able to crack their code, or to understand their language. To them it sounded like rushing water. They could not make sense out of it. Listen to its rhythms, its sound, its antiquity as Hawthorne speaks it. And you will get a sense of the genius of the Code Talkers as well when he explains a couple of the words that they used metaphorically, to replace English words that the Navajo “Dine Bizaad” language did not have.
A reconnaissance plane was not a concept that was in the parlance of the Dine Bizaad language. So they had to come up with a word from their language that could be used to describe that term. A reconnaissance plane flew sometimes at night, or during the day, was quiet, and was unarmed. The Dine or Navajo Code Talkers used the word for hummingbird (dah yi’itihi) in their language to do this.
When they referred to a commanding officer in code, they were also creative in order to keep that secret. Hawthorne gives an example of words to describe a Marine Corps captain. As you may know the two bars signify the rank of captain. They are referred to metaphorically in our own English language as “railroad tracks.” The Navaho Code talkers used the Dine Bizaad words for “two irons” to designate the rank of captain.
These are just a couple of the imaginative uses of the power of language, any language, to describe, communicate and, ironically, to disguise intent. You can see how the Navajo Dine Bizaad language, and the languages of other Native American Peoples was a very effective way to communicate necessary messages in code, in order to keep secret the orders and other communiques from the enemy.
We honor the ingenuity, the courage, the commitment and the success of the Navajo and other Native Peoples in their Code Talking efforts during WWII. They were truly instrumental in our ability to defeat the enemy.