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Native Words, Native Warriors
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Native Words, Native Warriors

Chapter 2: Native Languages

Living the Culture

Play Narration

Native American tribes have lived and thrived upon the North American landscape for thousands of years—since long before there was a United States. Historically, about 500 distinct Native languages were spoken in North America. All Code Talkers were fluent speakers of their tribes’ languages.

2.1

The Importance of American Indian Languages

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Language is the essence of culture. People’s ways of living, their histories, and their philosophies are all understood and communicated through language. Although most American Indian people today speak English, they still consider their traditional languages to be extremely important for cultural identity.

Even though many of these Native languages have disappeared now, many are still spoken. When the last speaker of a language passes away, the language is gone forever. Native communities are working hard to keep Native languages alive. A few tribes have been able revive lost languages using books and articles written in the past about their languages.

Listen to the quote

Language is central to cultural identity. It is the code containing the subtleties and secrets of cultural life. In many ways, language determines thought.

W. Richard West, Jr., founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian and member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe of Oklahoma.
W. Richard West, Jr.
Map of Native languages spoken in North America
2.2

Languages Used in Code Talking

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During World War I and World War II, a variety of American Indian languages were used to send secret military messages.

A Choctaw telephone squad
An unidentified American Indian marine used a walkie-talkie
Names of the tribes and the communities (when known) of the World War I American Indian Code Talkers
Names of the tribes and the communities (when known) of the World War II American Indian Code Talkers
2.3

The Navajo Language

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The Navajo people call themselves the Naabeeho´ Dine’é, or sometimes, Diné. Diné Bizaad is the Navajo term for the Navajo language. In many ways, today’s Navajo live like other people in the United States. Fortunately, many Navajos still speak their language. During World War II, about 420 Navajos served as Code Talkers—the most from any Native group. Today, the tribe works to preserve its language for future generations.

More about today’s Navajo

Current population: The Navajo have more than 300,000 tribal members.

The Navajo homeland: Four sacred mountains covering 27,000 square miles of the four corners area of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona define the Navajo homeland, Dinétah.

Arts: Traditionally, Navajo artists were well known for beautiful woven textiles and silver jewelry. Navajo artists today are also musicians, painters, sculptors, and poets.

Tribal government: The Navajo government operates under a constitution with a president, vice president, council (with 88 delegates representing 110 chapters), court system, police force, college, and many other programs and services for the Navajo people.

The seal of the Navajo Nation

Language In Use

Listen to a few samples of the Navajo language. Here are the English translations:
2.4

The Comanche Language

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During World War II, seventeen Comanches served as Code Talkers. The Comanche people call themselves the Nʉmʉnʉʉ. Nʉmʉ Tekwapʉha is the Comanche term for the Comanche language. Today, Comanches value their linguistic heritage even though the language is not spoken by all tribal members. The tribe has created language and cultural preservation programs that have produced numerous language instructional materials, including those that you can listen to here.

More about today’s Comanche

Current population: The Comanche have about 17,000 tribal members.

Traditional Comanche homeland: The traditional Comanche homeland spanned large parts of the southern Great Plains in what are now Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

Homeland today: Most Comanches live in the Lawton–Ft. Sill area of southwest Oklahoma.

Importance of horses: Horses are a very important part of traditional Comanche culture. The Comanche kept large herds and were well known for their exceptional horsemanship. They introduced other tribes to the use of horses.

Tribal government: The Comanche government is elected and guided by a constitution. The Comanche government is involved in many kinds of programs, including economic development, environmental protection, and education.

The flag of the Comanche Nation

Listen to an excerpt of the Comanche Flag Song. It is like a national anthem for the Comanche Nation.

Play Music Clip

Language In Use

Listen to a few samples of Comanche language:

2.5 Carl Gorman

Carl Gorman
Play Narration

Carl Gorman was born in 1907 in Chinle, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. According to the way that Navajo people introduce themselves, Mr. Gorman was of the Black Sheep Clan and born for the Towering House Clan. This identifies his lineage on both his mother’s and father’s sides. English and Navajo were spoken in Mr. Gorman’s boyhood home, and he learned both languages. As a young boy, he loved to draw pictures, ride his father’s horses, and tend his family’s sheep and cattle. He enjoyed watching his mother weave the beautiful and intricate traditional Navajo rugs. Carl Gorman learned the traditional Navajo ways and loved the beauty of the Navajo lands.

You are born with your culture. My culture is Navajo. That’s what you live with. Family, heritage—the roots are deep.

Carl Gorman, Navajo Code Talker (Henry and Georgia Greenberg, Power of a Navajo: Carl Gorman, the Man and His Life, 1996)
Carl Gorman stands outside the house in which he was born in 1907
Carl Gorman (kneeling) with his mother, Alice, and youngest brother, Steve
Carl Gorman on horseback with his brother and friends
Navajo rug
Cañon de Chelly

2.6 Charles Chibitty

Charles Chibitty
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Charles Chibitty was born in 1921 near Medicine Park, Oklahoma. This community is part of the traditional Comanche territory and is in the Wichita Mountains, north of Lawton, Oklahoma. Mr. Chibitty grew up speaking his tribe’s language. His last name, Chibitty, means “holding on good” in the Comanche language. In today’s Comanche government, the tribe elects its leaders. However, in the past, the Comanche chiefs inherited their positions of leadership. According to the Comanche Nation, Charles Chibitty was the last surviving hereditary chief of the tribe, descending on his mother's side from Chief Ten Bears.

Big Mountain (Mt. Scott)
Charles Chibitty in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2004.
Ten Bears
2.7

Reflection and Discussion Questions

Why is language such an important part of people’s cultures?

Why might it be difficult for Native American communities to keep their languages alive today?