Last week, right around the time we were observing the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the last of the original Navajo code talkers passed away. Chester Nez was 93 years old when he “walked on.”
You might know about the Navajo code talkers in World War II – Nez himself co-wrote a best-selling book about his experiences in the war, and they even made a movie with Nicolas Cage about them. But I learned some new things when I got the chance to visit the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center a couple of years ago. Codetalkers were used as early as World War I, where Cherokee and Choctaw speakers helped the US and Britain evade detection in major battles on the Western Front. The genius of these “codes” is that they’re not codes at all, but real full languages. Not even sophisticated decryption machines could “crack” the languages, and not a lot of people outside Native American communities speak Cherokee or Choctaw, so the WWI operations were considered a remarkable success.
It was a success that got a lot of attention, actually, and as Adolf Hitler was building up to what would become WWII, he sent linguists and anthropologists all across the US to attempt to learn our indigenous languages – hoping to head the next crop of code talkers off at the pass, as it were. But there are just too many languages here (we are so linguistically diverse!), and US forces were able to use code talkers from 33 tribes, including the Comanche, Seminole, and Navajo, to transmit messages in WWII.
The most famous and most numerous of these operations involved a group of 29 Navajo speakers, known as the “original 29” recruited by the Marine Corps in 1942 (eventually a few hundred more would join.) Navajo has a reputation as an extraordinarily difficult language, and anthropologists estimated that fewer than 30 non-Navajos could speak the language with any fluency by the time WWII broke out. The Navajo code talkers didn’t just speak to each other in their native tongue. They developed a set of code words for military terms, and changed the Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet (i.e. Alfa, Bravo, Charlie) into one based on animals and geographic features (i.e. Ant, Bear, Cat), which they then translated into Navajo (i.e. Wóláchííʼ, Shash, Mósí).
Chester Nez was the last of these original 29 Navajo codetalkers from WWII. Here is a video of him discussing his experiences in the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater:
In November of last year the code talkers from the 33 tribes were all honored and presented with Congressional Gold Medals for their service. At the ceremony, Senator Harry Reid said:
“In the late 1800s, the United States government forced Native American children to attend English only boarding schools. Native children were torn from their families, taken far from home in boxcars and buggies, given English names, forced to cut their hair short and teachers beat the children with leather straps when they spoke their Native languages. The government told them their language had no value, but the children held onto their language, culture and history at great personal risk.
In this nation’s hour of greatest need these same Native American languages proved to have great value in the early years of World War II…Why would Native Americans, who had been robbed of their land and their culture agree to use their precious language to protect the country that had neglected and abused them for centuries? As one Navajo Native American code talker by the name of Chester Nez put it, ‘Somebody has got to defend this country, somebody has to defend freedom.'”
Ahéhee’, to Chester Nez.
Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams. See About for details.