Native American History Month
When words win wars

Gary Harrington
Native American Heritage chairperson

Having been written about and even featured on the big screen, the use of Native American languages during World War II is fast becoming a celebrated aspect of American history. While many people may be aware of the Navajo code talkers during the Second World War, Navajo was not the only Native American language to be used to send secure communications.

By the end of World War II, 14 Choctaw men in the Army’s 36th Division used their language to win several key battles during the final push to win the war.

Along with the Choctaw and Navajo code talkers during World War II there were also members of the Comanche, Sioux, Hopi, Kiowa, Winnebago and Seminole Code tribes who used their languages as secret code toward the war effort.

One of the hardest languages to break was Navajo, an unwritten language of extreme complexity. It’ syntax, tonal qualities and dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols and is spoken only on Navajo lands in the American southwest.
One estimate indicated that less than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II.

When a Navajo code talker received a message, what he heard was a string of seemingly unrelated Navajo words. The code talker first had to translate each Navajo word into an English equivalent. Then he used only the first letter of the English equivalent in spelling an English word. While Navajo code talkers were used extensively by Marines in the Pacific, the other languages were used primarily in the European theater.

The language codes of the Native Americans serving the United States during the 1st and 2nd World Wars were never broken.