Native American Code Talkers

Native words, native warriors

By Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

This exhibit was developed in collaboration with the National Air and Space Museum

Two Navajo Code TalkersOriginal Source: National Archives and Records Administration

During World War I and World War II, hundreds of American Indians joined the United States armed forces and used words from their traditional tribal languages as weapons. Some tribes were recruited by the United States military to develop secret battle communications using their languages. Other Native people found one another during the war and informally used their languages to subvert the enemy. “Code Talkers,” as they came to be known after World War II, are twentieth-century American Indian warriors and heroes who significantly aided the victories of the United States and its allies.

Attack of the Seminoles on the block house (1837)Original Source: Library of Congress

American Indian nations have always fought to defend themselves. Their history includes numerous wars with enemies, such as the United States. Leading up to the world wars, the U.S. government had also spent years trying to erase American Indian cultures and ways of life, including the use of native languages.

St. Mary’s Mission School students, Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota (ca. 1900)Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, many American Indian families were forced to send their children to boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their Native languages. Many Code Talkers attended boarding schools and as adults found it puzzling that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service.

Corporal Henry Bahe Jr. and Private First Class George H. Kirk, Bougainville, December 1943 (1943)Original Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Despite everything that American Indians had endured in the past, American Indian men and women have served in all branches of the military. In many conflicts and wars, including World War I and World War II, American Indians honorably defended their homelands and the United States.

In World War I, Choctaw and other American Indians transmitted battle messages in their tribal languages by telephone. Although not used extensively, the World War I telephone squads played a key role in helping the United States Army win several battles in France that brought about the end of the war.

American Indian marine with a walkie-talkie, South Pacific, 1943 (1943)Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

Beginning in 1940, the army recruited Comanche, Meskwaki, Chippewa, Oneida, and later, Hopi, people to transmit messages in code during World War II. Then in 1941 and 1942, the Marine Corps recruited Navajo Code Talkers.

In 1942, Philip Johnston, who was not American Indian but had grown up on the Navajo reservation and had heard about the successes of the Choctaw telephone squad, suggested to the Marine Corps that Navajos and other tribes could be very helpful in maintaining communications secrecy.

After viewing a demonstration of messages sent in the Navajo language, the Marine Corps recruited 29 Navajos to develop a code within their language. The Marine Corps established a Code Talking school once the Navajo code was created.

Navajo Type One code.Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

To develop their Type One Code, the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers first came up with English words for each letter of the English alphabet. Since they had to memorize all the words, they used things that were familiar to them, such as kinds of animals. Then, they translated those words into Navajo.

Navy Code Talkers in the PacificSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

As the war progressed, more than 400 Navajos were eventually recruited as Code Talkers.

Ultimately, there were Code Talkers from at least 16 tribes who served in the Army, the Marines, and the Navy.* Some Code Talkers enlisted, others were drafted

Their training was intense. Following basic training, the Code Talkers completed extensive training in communications and memorizing the code.

Private First Class Carl Gorman, near Garapan, Saipan, Mariana IslandsSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

One such Code Talker was Carl Gorman, who joined the United States Marine Corps in 1942 when he learned they were recruiting Navajos. He went through all of the difficult training and was one of the original 29 Navajos who were given the secret mission of developing the Navajo code.

Mr. Gorman served in four important Pacific battles: Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Tinian, and Saipan. In 1942, he was stricken by Malaria, a severe tropical disease, yet he continued to fight. In 1944, Mr. Gorman was evacuated from Saipan suffering both from the effects of Malaria and post-traumatic stress. He had to be hospitalized and took many months to recover.

American Indian marine with a walkie-talkie, South Pacific, 1943 (1943)Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

The Native American Code Talkers were fluent in their tribe’s language, and they operated both wire and radio equipment, and often had to carry it on their backs. They had to set up and maintain the electronic communication wires or lines. Sometimes their messages were broadcast over a wide area, helping to direct bigger operations. At other times, messages related to a smaller group, such as a platoon.

They provided an invaluable service by using their language to create special codes and are credited with saving thousands of American and Allied lives.

More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I—about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at that time. During World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 400,000, an estimated 44,000 Indian men and 800 women served.

Southwest landscape (ca. 1940)Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

After World War II, most American Indian Code Talkers returned to communities that were having difficult economic times. Racism toward American Indian people was common and even though they had served their country with distinction, American Indian veterans could not eat or drink in some establishments—or even vote in some national or state elections.

Partly due to the secrecy of the program, in the military and non-Indian world, recognition for the Code Talkers was slow to develop. They were not acknowledged for many years despite their sacrifices and important roles in winning the war.

Code Talkers with President George W. Bush, Washington, DC, 2001 (2001)Original Source: White House


In 1989, the French government awarded the Comanche Code Talkers the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit, a very high honor. Finally, in 2000, the United States Congress passed legislation to honor the Navajo Code Talkers and provided them with special gold and silver Congressional Medals. The gold medals were for the original 29 Navajos that developed the code, and the silver medals for those that served later in the program.

A statement in the Navajo language on the back of the medals translates to: “With the Navajo language they defeated the enemy.”

Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 to officially recognize all American Indians who served as Code Talkers during World Wars I and II. Beyond Washington, DC, tribal governments, some state and local governments, and a variety of organizations have acknowledged the importance of the Code Talkers.

National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DCSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

The Code Talkers’ achievements are many. They overcame the difficulties imposed on Native peoples. They served their families, their communities, and their country by helping to win the two major wars of the twentieth century. They demonstrated the importance of their tribal languages to the world and helped preserve them for the future. They are respected and admired by younger generations of American Indian people. For all of these accomplishments, the National Museum of the American Indian thanks and honors the Code Talkers and Native Warriors of the twentieth century.

Credits: Story

*These tribes included:

World War I:
Cherokee (OK and NC)
Choctaw (19)
Yankton Sioux

World War II:
Canadian Cree
Comanche (17)
Navajo (420)
Sioux––Lakota and Dakota

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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