Not long ago the United States government believed that Native Americans must learn to embrace the ways of the non-natives so that they would assimilate better in modern American society. Children were rounded up and sent to government-run boarding schools where they were forbidden to use their native language and denied the ability to dress like their people. Many children were punished often for trying to communicate using their own language, which began the great suppression of Native American languages around the country.
A few years after this practice of cultural and social assimilation of the Native American children, a missionary came to Navajo territory and, with him, his son Philip Johnston. Philip Johnston began to learn the Navajo language and kept its memory with him until World War II broke out involving the United States. There was an extreme necessity to end the conflict in the South Pacific against Japanese military aggression, but how they were going to be able to do it became the biggest puzzle. Regardless of the fact that the United States possessed larger military force than the Japanese, they were still suffering heavy death tolls. Every maneuver and strategic plan was matched and thwarted by the Japanese military. Every time the marines would plan an attack, the Japanese code breakers would decipher all the details. Even the United States Navy was not safe as Japanese code breakers found their ocean coordinates and bombed their ships and ports. The Japanese code breakers created the biggest obstacle for the United States military, and its higher officials were at a loss for a solution until Philip Johnston proposed that the Marines used Navajo Native Americans to send messages and receive throughout the south Pacific.
What made the Navajo language so unique? It was mostly due to the fact that the Navajo language did not possess an alphabet and it wasn’t written. In fact, there were only 50,000 Navajo living in the United States during 1942. The only way a person could learn the Navajo language was by living in a community and observing the pronunciation of words, therefore being a Navajo language speaker was quite unique. With this knowledge, Philip Johnston convinced Major Howard Conner, 5th Marine Division signal officer, of the uniqueness of the Navajo language — and since it has never been a written language the Japanese had no means of reference to decipher what would be said.
Shortly after this discussion, 29 Navajo males were enlisted to transmit and interpret encoded messages, thereby securing the vital communications between military commands. This first batch of brave young men began in 1942 and they were trained at Camp Pendleton Marine base before they served at their posts. Some of these Navajo males were still in their teenage years. These young men developed their own code using their Navajo language, which proved itself so successful, that it began to turn the tide in the favor of the United States during the war. By the time World War II ended, there were almost 420 code talkers utilized by the United States military, and every one of these brave young men was put in harm’s way to perform his duties. The United States had come full circle — from banning the them from speaking their own language, to embracing the Navajo and deeply valuing their native tongue — thus proving that even in the face of adversity, the Navajo cannot be broken.
Given the treatment of the Navajo by the United States in the past, why would they want to fight with the very people who punished them for using their native tongue? Navajo Code talker Keith Little, replies to such questions by saying, “All I knew is that this was our land. When I heard it was being bombed, being attacked by some enemy, that didn’t sit well with me.”
The taking of Iwo Jima was strategically pivotal for ending the war in the Pacific. The strategy of the taking Iwo Jima, made it possible so that the United States Military could land bombers that were capable of penetrating of what had been an impenetrable country. Simply put, the taking of Iwo Jima ensured a quick end to the war with Japan. In fact Major Howard Connor, stated “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
Given the huge contribution that the Navajo code talkers had given to the United States, one would suspect that they were given one of the most enthusiastic celebrations when they came back to the Unites States. However, this was not the treatment they received. No one in the United States knew about their heroic efforts because their involvement was deemed classified. This was mainly due to the fact that the Japanese government was never able to crack the Navajo Code. They were considered too valuable due to concerns that another war may break out, therefore the Navajo code talkers were never acknowledged until the present.
So when traveling in Navajo country, think not of their turquoise, their fry bread or even their baskets, but think of their language — a gift that cannot be held, and a people who will never be broken.
-For more information and to contribute to the Navajo Nation’s “Code Talkers Museum” please visit their website.