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Native Words, Native Warriors
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National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian
Native Words, Native Warriors

Chapter 1: Introduction

Code Talkers

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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 who significantly aided the victories of the United States and its allies. Now explore the stories below. You can see close-ups and additional images in the gallery.


Protecting the Homelands

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American Indian nations have always fought to defend themselves. Anyone who threatened their families, cultures, and lands was their enemy, including the United States. As a result of wars with the United States, many tribes were forced off their lands, relocated, or confined to reservations where they endured poverty, racism, and attempts to erase their traditional cultures. Languages were particularly targeted in the government’s efforts to change American Indians’ ways of life. Beginning in the late 1800s, Indian children were forbidden to speak their own languages and punished in government- and church-supported boarding schools if they did.

Many American Indians were not legally considered citizens of the United States until 1924. Even then, some states refused to let American Indians vote until as late as the 1950s.

Despite this tragic history, many 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.

Listen to an excerpt of the Diné (Navajo) Flag Song. It is like a national anthem for the Navajo Nation.

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This print depicts Seminole warriors fighting attempts by the U.S. to force them to give up their lands in Florida
Town of Ramah, New Mexico
Two portraits of Tom Torlino
A group of Chiricahua Apache Indians who had arrived at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School
Navajo Code Talkers and U.S. Marine Privates First Class Alec E. Nez and William D. Yazzie

Twentieth-Century Warriors

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American Indian Code Talkers were communications specialists. Their job was to send coded messages about troop movements, enemy positions, and other critical information on the battlefield. Some Code Talkers translated messages into their Native languages and relayed them to another tribal member. Others developed special codes within their languages that they used in combat to send important messages.

Language In Use

Native wordLiteral meaningCode meaning

tushka chipota (Choctaw)
warrior soldier

atsá (Navajo)
transport plane

paaki (Hopi)
houses on water

wakaree´e (Comanche)

Navajo cousins Private First Class Preston Toledo and Private First Class Frank Toledo were both Code Talkers
Listen to the quote

It became serious when we started to develop that code. You know, they wouldn’t let anybody in there. They kind of shut us out, secretly you know. Trying to talk about it back and forth. And there’s lots of guards around.

John Brown Jr., Navajo Code Talker
John Brown Jr.
Listen to the quote

This major took us into a great big room and he said, “you guys are going to have to make up a code in your own native language,” that’s all he said. He left, closed the door behind him and locked the door. We didn’t know what to think, you know? What does he mean by making a code in our own language? We sat there for about three or four minutes thinking, how are we going to develop this code?

Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker
Chester Nez

1.3 Meet Code Talker Carl Gorman

Carl Gorman
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Carl Gorman was a Navajo Code Talker in World War II. Mr. Gorman grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and served in the United States Marine Corps in the war against Japan. Throughout this website, you can follow his life story.

1.4 Meet Code Talker Charles Chibitty

Charles Chibitty
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Charles Chibitty was a Comanche Code Talker in World War II. Mr. Chibitty was from a Comanche community in Oklahoma and served in the United States Army in the war against Germany. Throughout this website, you can follow his life story.