Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

April 8, 2014

Using language to fight a war

NSU guest speaker discusses Navajo code talkers

TAHLEQUAH — An author, playwright, librettist and poet specializing in the history of Navajo code talkers kicked off preliminary activities of the 42nd Symposium on the American Indian at Northeastern State University Monday night.

Dr. Laura Tohe was also present for the last day of the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, “Native Words, Native Warriors,” at the John Vaughan Library, and as part of the Indigenous Scholar Development Center’s Visiting Indigenous Scholars Series.

Tohe’s examination of Navajos serving as message encryptors during World War II began with her father, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific theater as a Navajo code talker.

“Many of the Navajo who volunteered were just schoolboys,” Tohe said. “My father was just 16 when he enlisted.”

Phillip Johnston, a veteran raised on the reservation and fluent in Navajo, knew of the use of Choctaw code talkers in the First World War.

“He wanted to use the Navajo language in the south Pacific, because the Japanese were breaking all the codes,” she said.

The first 29 Navajos who entered the program were charged with creating the code. They developed a system that was intricate, but not cumbersome.

To convey a message, the sender might speak several words in Navajo, though they didn’t make sense as a sentence. After the receiver translated the words to English, the first letters of each word could spell out the actual message.

If an English word did not translate into Navajo, the code used substitutes.

A dive bomber was “gini,” or chicken hawk; a destroyer was “ca-lo,” or shark; and a reconnaissance aircraft was “ne-as-jah,” or owl.

“The code talkers used the oral traditions when they devised and memorized the code,” Tohe said. “Oral traditions pass on stories, knowledge philosophy, language, tribal history, songs and ceremonies.

By the end of their training, they had to have memorized 450 words.”

Tohe’s father did not tell her of his service as a code talker until 1983. The American public was completely unaware of the code talkers until 1968, when the program was declassified.

During Tohe’s interviews of them, the code talkers cited many reasons to join the fight: Doing so defended much that is venerated in Navajo culture.

“They wanted to protect the earth and the people,” she said.

“They took great pride in the land. They were concerned for the future. They wanted to preserve what was sacred, including the Four Sacred Mountains.”

As young men, they also weren’t oblivious to fashion.

“I was surprised that many said they liked the military uniforms,” Tohe said. “The recruiters who visited their schools were dressed up and they wanted to look like that.”

Tohe’s lecture preceded a screening of the History Channel documentary, “In Search of History: Navajo Code Talkers.”

Members of many tribes served as code talkers during the war in both theaters, but the Navajo unit was the largest, numbering 425 men.

Japanese code breakers did finally realize one Native American code was rooted in the Navajo language, but not a single code talker message was ever decrypted by the enemy in either theater.

srowley@tahlequahdailypress.com

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