Native American Code Talkers: Language Diversity at Work

A section of a rug with stylized depictions of blue sky with clouds, green and brown mountains, and farmland with cows

This post was written by Alaka Wali, curator of North American Anthropology, and Gino Diliberto, anthropologist and volunteer with The Field Museum.

Native American languages have been used to create military code during times of war since World War I, when the very first native code talkers to serve in the United States Military were recruited from the Choctaw Nation. In fact, Adolf Hitler sent a team of anthropologists to the United States to learn Native American languages prior to World War II, but they failed to learn all the numerous languages that existed. Military codes utilizing Native American languages were vital in several key battles of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

While these codes are revised, altered, or decommissioned over time, the Navajo code is the only spoken military code to never be deciphered. The Navajo language (Diné bizaad) was the basis for an incredible military code due to several factors, including its grammar, obscurity, and tonal qualities. It is part of the Southern Athabaskan (or Na-Dené) language family and is spoken today by an estimated 170,000 people. Its intricate and complex grammar and tonal qualities made it difficult for non-Native speakers to learn.

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A woven rug with stylized depictions of blue sky with clouds, green and brown mountains, and farmland with cows
This Navajo textile (FM 242116) is currently on display in the Native North American Hall. It is one of 15 Navajo textiles that were donated to the Museum by the Bass Family from 1995 to 2001. Navajo woven textiles are renowned for their fine craftsmanship and design, but this piece is special in that it depicts the landscape of the Navajo Nation homeland.  

The first 29 Navajo recruits were trained in May of 1942 at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California, where they created the Navajo code that would be used in the Pacific theater. They laid out the entire code talkers dictionary, assigning each letter of the English alphabet to a Navajo word. Once translated, the first letter of that word would give the corresponding English letter. For example, the letter “A” could be given as either Wol-la-chee (ant) or it could be given as Tse-nill (axe). 

To make decoding even faster and more efficient, specific names were given to roughly 450 vehicles, tactics, and military terms. For example, “fighter plane” was given the codename Dah-he-tih-hi (hummingbird); “squad” was Debeh-li-zine (black street); and “submarine” was Besh-lo (iron fish).

Many of the Navajo code talkers were Marines, and once training was completed, they were deployed to a Marine unit in the Pacific Theater. While their main duty was that of a messenger, transmitting orders on troop movements and tactics and relaying battlefield communications over radio, they also performed the general duties of a Marine.

The unbreakable code was a vital part of several victories in the Pacific theater, most notably at Iwo Jima. It was here that Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” Six Navajo code talkers worked day and night during the first days of the battle, sending and receiving well over 800 messages without a single mistake. Roughly 420 of the 540 Navajo who served as Marines worked as code talkers by the end of the war in 1945. The Navajo code, still unbroken at this time, remained a valuable asset and classified code for many years to come.

Today, the Navajo language remains a vital spoken language taught in schools across Navajo land. The Navajo Nation’s Education Department facilitates immersion programs, and the tribal community college, Diné College, offers courses in Navajo literature, medical terminology, and pedagogy.   

Anthropologists have put forward many different hypotheses about the relationship between language and culture. They have asked if language is fundamental to cultural identity, and how easy or difficult it is to translate from one language to another. The recent popular film, Arrival, has a linguist as its main protagonist. She is tasked with communicating with an alien species that arrives mysteriously on earth. Ultimately, she learns their language and begins to “think” like the aliens. The underlying hypothesis considered here (and mentioned in the film) is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that individuals’ thoughts are determined or structured by the language they speak.

The hypothesis was put forward by linguistic anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, both of whom studied Native American languages. The hypothesis as yet remains just that, but what we do know is that both language diversity and cultural diversity have played critical roles in the capacity of our species to thrive. Some anthropologists, for example, have documented that indigenous languages frequently contain vocabularies that signify deep knowledge of their home environments. These languages contain large numbers of words for plant and animal species that may be as yet unknown to Western scientists. The Navajo language, together with the hundreds of other indigenous languages that are spoken today, is thus vital to our human capacity for creativity and resilience.