Navajo Code Talkers: Using Indigenous Language As A Secret Cipher

How Native Americans turned their first languages into crucial forms of communication in both world wars.
navajo code talkers

When you think about cracking codes, you probably think of spies, secret societies and The Imitation Game. Native American languages, on the other hand, might not be first to come to mind — unless, of course, you’re already familiar with the story of the Navajo Code Talkers. The role of Navajo Code Talkers in World War II is a fascinating part of history, and it shows the clever ways language can be used to solve difficult problems.

Who Were The Navajo Code Talkers?

Nearly 400 Navajos were recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps over the course of World War II to transmit messages using a secret code based on the Navajo language. U.S. Marines visited Navajo reservations and Native American schools to recruit the volunteers who would become the Navajo Code Talkers. The first 29 Navajo recruits developed the code itself.

The Indigenous Languages Of World War I

Navajos weren’t the first indigenous tribe to use their native language as a military code. During World War I, teams of Native Americans — mostly Choctaws — used their languages to transmit coded messages by telephone for the U.S. Military. This was a relatively small-scale program, but it was seen as successful.

After the war, however, Germany and Japan began to study Native American languages and cultures in order to prepare for any future codes that needed cracking. Naturally, the U.S. Military was reluctant to use indigenous languages for future ciphers, for fear that they would be too easily cracked.

World War II: A New Approach

During World War II, the U.S. Military was trying to find another code they could use for secret communications (to replace the indigenous languages they used in WWI). Their search caught the attention of a civil engineer named Philip Johnston, who had grown up on a Navajo reservation (his parents were missionaries) and spoke the Navajo language fluently. He believed this language’s complexity, and the fact that it wasn’t one of the languages the Germans and Japanese studied, would make it the perfect candidate for a military cipher.

The Marines agreed to a pilot program and recruited a small group of Navajos to develop the code and test it. The code turned out to be highly effective; it was virtually unbreakable and allowed for much faster communication than encrypting machines did. The Marines decided to expand the program and ended up recruiting nearly 400 Navajos and setting up a Code Talking School to teach the cipher to new recruits.

The code functioned as a substitution cipher composed primarily of Navajo animal names. It had two main parts: an encrypted alphabet, using a Navajo word (usually the name of an animal) as a substitute for the first letter of that word’s English translation. For example, the letter “C” was represented by MOASI, the Navajo word for “cat.” The second part was full word substitutions for commonly used military terms, so in the code, a transport plane was called ATSAH, the Navajo word for “eagle,” because the Navajos thought a picture they were shown of the plane resembled an eagle. You can see the full Navajo code here.

The Navajo Code Talkers took part in almost every battle waged in the Pacific during WWII, and they were credited with helping to secure a number of victories, including the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Honoring The Code Talkers

The Navajo Code Talkers weren’t honored for their accomplishments until 1981 (the program was declassified in 1968), when President Ronald Reagan presented them with a Certificate of Appreciation. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law awarding the original Code Talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal, and President George W. Bush presented the four surviving original Code Talkers with the medals in 2001.

Plans are underway for a Navajo Code Talker museum in New Mexico to honor the Code Talkers and educate the public about their work.

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