The Secret Code-Talkers of World War II


This article is a transcript of Campfire Stories: Astonishing History podcast Episode 8 (Part 1). You can listen to it on Buzzsprout, or wherever you get your podcasts.

A group of Comanche soldiers in uniform sitting for a photo
Comanche code-talkers


Come gather around the campfire and let me tell you a story! Today we’re going to be talking about the code-breakers and code-talkers of World War II. This episode actually turned out longer than I thought, so I’m going to be splitting it into two parts. Part 1 will discuss Native American code-talkers, including the Navajo and Comanche, and a special side story about the last Crow war chief Joe Medicine Crow. Part 2 will discuss Allied code-cracking teams including the stories of Alan Turing, Marian Rejewski, Elizabeth Friedman, and the Venona project.

First let’s discuss some background. Before Christopher Columbus landed in what he thought was Asia but was actually the Bahamas, there were somewhere between a million to 18 million Native Americans living in North America. The next several hundred years were marked with disease, war, exploitation, slavery, and hardship that reduced the Native population by as much as 95%.

For the Native Americans who survived into the 1800s and first half of the 1900s, the U.S. and Canadian governments tried to kill the idea of Native Americans instead of actually killing them and pushed assimilation, as they did for incoming immigrants from other places as well. They also forced Native Americans onto reservations. And up until the 1980s Native Americans could lose their tribal status if they did certain actions including marrying non-Natives, earning a college degree, or joining the U.S. military.

A historical photo of Native American children sitting at school desks
Native American boarding school

One of the most egregious parts of the assimilation strategy was boarding schools. Which sounds fun if you’re picturing a Harry Potter-esq experience, but these schools were definitely not that. Native American and First Nations children in the U.S. and Canada were forced into residential boarding schools run by European-Americans.

The intent of many of them, as one boarding-school head described was to,

“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

The students would be put into Western clothes and hair styles, separated from friends and family, and punished for any display of their culture, including speaking their native languages. Many were converted to Christianity.

Abuse was very common, and at some schools, up to half the children died. Some escaped and traveled miles home on foot. Many Native families hid their children whenever the government approached. In 1894, nineteen Hopi men were jailed when they refused to tell the government where their children were.

I will mention that the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian does say that some Native Americans said that they had a positive experience in boarding schools and it is clear that some were much more pleasant than others, but overall, boarding schools are a shameful chapter in American history.

In the 1960s and 70s, Native American civil rights activists fought for rights to land, resources, self-government, and other causes to better the lives of their communities. Today, the Native American population is about 6.7 million people, and growing, and about 22% live on reservations.

A portrait of William Pollack in a Rough Rider army uniform
William Pollack

Despite the mistreatment that Native Americans have experienced at the hands of the U.S. government, there is a strong tradition of Native Americans joining the U.S. military. Native Americans served on both sides of the Revolutionary and Civil War. Hundreds of Native scouts were enlisted during the late 1800s. Some joined Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Many Native men considered military service a continuation of the warrior tradition. Generally traditional Native warriors weren’t only military leaders, but also leaders of the tribe entrusted with taking care of the community. Rough Rider William Pollock, a member of the Pawnee tribe, which is real and not just the name of the town in Parks and Rec, said of his service,

“In the memory of our brave fathers I will try and be like one of them, who used to stand single-handed against the foes.”

Pollock himself returned to his tribe and was given horses and other honors, but died of pneumonia soon after. Teddy Roosevelt himself said that Pollock, “conferred honor by his conduct not only upon the Pawnee tribe, but upon the American army and nation.”

Four Lakota women who were nuns served as the first Native American army nurses during the Spanish-American war.

World War I was where the first use of code-talkers began.

A group of soldiers, several wearing traditional Native American clothing
Native American code-talkers

Native Code-Talkers

The term code talker refers to a military member who uses their own language as a code. Generally it’s used to refer to Native Americans during World War I and II.

Over 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I, which was 25% of the male Native population in the United States. Some of the code-talkers were drafted for the war. Some of the ones who enlisted themselves were under eighteen, as young as fifteen, and lied about their age to join. There were several native languages used for code talking.

Other Code-Talkers Around the World

As far as code-talkers outside of the United States, there have been very few. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt used Nubian code talkers. During the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, China used the extremely complicated Chinese dialect of Wenzhounese, which has been nicknamed “the Devil’s language” for how hard it is to learn or understand.

Britain used Welsh for some coded communication during World War II, and the Royal Air Force had planned to use it more widely, but chose not to follow through with the plan. But generally, code-talking was unique to the United States, like bacon doughnuts and those gaps between the door and wall of a bathroom stall.

A group of men hold up an American flag
Choctaw code-talkers

World War I

In World War I, 12,000 Native men enlisted in the U.S. Army and 10,000 Native Americans started working for the Red Cross to support the troops. This was during a time where one-third of Natives were not even recognized as American citizens. 5% of Native American troops were killed, versus 1% of general U.S. troops. In 1924, all Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship.

The first code talkers were Cherokee and Choctaw Native Americans in World War I. Cherokee soldiers who joined the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Marines used their native language to send messages during the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918.

Also during World War I, an Army captain, Lawrence, overheard two soldiers named Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb speaking Choctaw together and realized that it could be useful for coded messages. There were eight Choctaw soldiers in the 36th Infantry Division who trained to be code talkers on the Western front of the war. In one battle on October 26th, 1918, the code talkers were used and:

“The tide of battle turned within 24 hours… within 72 hours the Allies were on full attack.”

After World War I, the German government became aware of Native American code talkers being used by the U.S. military. They sent thirty anthropologists to learn Native languages before World War II, but failed to do so, because of the large number of Native languages and dialects. We love Nazis being defeated by diversity. But because of this effort by the Germans, the U.S. decided to use code talkers in the Pacific theater of the war instead of in Europe.

Two soldiers operate radio equipment
Navajo code-talkers

World War II

Over 44,000 Native American men and 800 Native American women served in World War II, out of a total Native American population of 400,000. Which, for anyone who’s like me, is not quick with mental math, is about 11% of the entire Native American population at the time.

One Lakota Sioux woman named Margie Williams said of their service,

“It is with much pride that the Indian woman dons the uniform of her country . . . The Redman is proving to his white brother that he can make an outstanding contribution, both on the home front and behind the firing lines. With the same pride and devotion, the Indian woman is proving herself to be one of Uncle Sam’s priceless daughters.”

6,300 Alaska Natives joined the Alaska Territorial Guard to patrol the coast and shoot down Japanese balloon bombs in a team called the “Eskimo Guard”.

A portrait of Joe Medicine Crow wearing traditional clothing

Joe Medicine Crow

I will mention one famous Native American World War II soldier who was not a code-talker, because his story is so fascinating to me that I couldn’t leave it out. It is impossible for me to talk about the contributions of Native American servicemen in World War II without mentioning Joe Medicine Crow, the last surviving Plains Indians war chief. Joseph Medicine Crow, was born in 1913 on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.

His parents were Amy Yellowtail and Leo Medicine Crow. His paternal grandfather, Chief Medicine Crow, had become a war chief by 22, and on his mother’s side, his step-grandfather was White Man Runs Him, also known as White Buffalo That Turns Around. White Man Runs Him was a scout for General Custer’s army and witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Joe’s cousin was Pauline Small, who was the first woman elected to office in the Crow Tribe. So safe to say it was a successful family. No pressure at all on Joe.

By the time Medicine Crow was in eighth grade, he was attending prep classes at Bacone College in Oklahoma, and he got a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology in 1938. By 1939, he became the first member of the Crow tribe to get a masters degree with his thesis: The effects of European Culture Contact upon the economic, social, and religious life of the Crow Indians. He started work on a doctoral degree, but World War II came in and changed the course of his life forever. He worked for half a year in a naval shipyard, and then joined the Army in 1943 as a scout for the 103rd Infantry Division.

When Medicine Crow went into battle he wore his war paint and sacred eagle feather under his uniform and helmet. To become a Crow war chief, four achievements are needed: taking an enemy’s weapon, leading a successful war party, stealing an enemy’s horse, and touching an enemy without killing them.

He took the weapon and led the war party. At one point during the war, he turned a corner and walked directly into a German solider. A report described,

“The collision knocked the German’s weapon to the ground. Mr. Crow lowered his own weapon and the two fought hand-to-hand. In the end Mr. Crow got the best of the German, grabbing him by the neck and choking him. He was going to kill the German soldier on the spot when the man screamed out ‘mama.’ Mr. Crow then let him go.”

Finally, Medicine Crow didn’t just steal one horse. He stole fifty horses from a Nazi SS camp and sang a Crow honor song while he did it.

After the end of the war, Medicine Crow came back to the headquarters of the Crow Native government in Montana. He became a tribal historian, anthropologist, board member on the Crow Central Education Commission, and a founding member of Little Big Horn College and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. He published several books preserving the cultural knowledge, history, and photographs of the Crow people, and a children’s book called Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.

He was also a founding member of the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth. He spoke to the United Nations in 1999. He was featured in the Ken Burns PBS docuseries “The War”. He received a laundry list of awards, including the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Senator John Tester, who nominated him for the award, said of Medicine Crow,

“Joe Medicine Crow was a soldier and a scholar, but above all was a fierce advocate for Native American families When you spoke with Joe Medicine Crow, it was impossible not to be inspired. I know his legacy will motivate generations of Montanans to follow in his footsteps and live a life dedicated to serving others.”

He was the last Crow tribe member to become a war chief and lived until 2016, when he died at the age of 102.

A graphic from the National Museum of the American Indian

WWII Code-Talkers

Ok. Now back to the code-talkers. During World War II, there were two types of codes primarily used. Type one codes were formalized. A word from their language would be substituted for each letter of the English alphabet. The Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki, and Navajo languages were used for type one codes. Type two codes were not formalized, and would translate the English message into their own language. If there was not a direct translation, they would use a description from their own language.

Twenty-seven men from the Meskwaki Native American tribe, also known as the Fox tribe, enlisted in the U.S. Army together. These twenty-seven made up 16% of the entire Meskwaki population in Iowa. Eight of them were trained as code talkers and used in operations in Northern Africa. These men had all passed away by 2013 when the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to them, but members of their community accepted it on their behalf.

A lesser known group of code talkers in World War II was the Cree code talkers used by the Canadian Armed Forces. Their role was classified until 1963, and one of the last Cree code talkers, Charles “Checker” Tomkins was interviewed by the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian and his story was told in the 2016 documentary Cree Code Talkers. Other than this, the Cree code talkers are largely not mentioned in stories of code talkers in the war.

There were also several Mohawk code talkers who served in the US Army operations in the Pacific. Levi Oakes was the last surviving Mohawk code talker, born on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Reserve. He was one of the Mohawk code talkers who used the Kanien’keha sub-language. His brother Sam Oakes also served near him.

Muscogee is a language of the Creek and Seminole people native to the south eastern United States. Muscogee was used as a type 2 informal code. Tony Palmer, Leslie Richard, Thomas MacIntosh, and Edmund Harjo were all recognized Seminole/Creek code talkers. Harjo was the last surviving Native American code-talker and was recognized in the 2013 gold medal ceremony. He enlisted with his brothers, and they were part of the Battle of the Bulge and Normandy. The story goes that in 1944, Harjo heard another soldier singing in Muscogee, and stopped to talk to them. They were then overheard by an army captain, and put to work as code talkers. This story was later told at the ceremony.

Several American soldiers in World War II also used the Native Alaskan language of Tlingit as code against the Japanese. Even after the role of the Navajo code talkers was declassified, the Tlingit code talkers were not recognized until 2019, when five of them were posthumously honored by the state of Alaska.

A Native American man wearing a full warrior headdress
Gilbert Horn Sr.

The Assiniboine people, also known as the Nakota or Hohe people of the Great Planes and Canada also served as code talkers in World War II. Gilbert Horn Sr. was one of the Assiniboine code talkers. Horn grew up on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana When he was seventeen years old, he enlisted in the U.S. army and was trained in coded communication.

During the war, he volunteered for the special operations team Merrill’s Marauders. The Marauders were a long-range penetration unity, which means they were designed to go deep behind enemy lines in Asia. Horn and the Marauders marched 800 miles through Burma and China to cut Japanese supply lines. Out of 3,000 volunteers for the unit, less than 1,200 men survived. The entire unit was given a Distinguished Unit Citation for bravery.

Horn himself also received a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart. After World War II, Horn returned to the reservation where he grew up and became a member of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, which he served on for nineteen years. He lobbied the U.S. government to receive a health clinic for the reservation, which they eventually granted. Fort also wrote new regulations for the tribal juvenile court and was a judge for eight years. In 2014, he was named honorary chief of the Fort Belknap Assiniboine Tribe, the first person to be honored this way since the 1890s.

It was reported in Euzko Deya magazine in 1952, that the Basque language was also considered for World War II code-talkers, and that in 1942, Captain Frank Carranza met sixty U.S. Marines who had Basque ancestry, which is a people from north-central Spain and south-western France.

However, there were several groups of Basque people living in east Asia, which could be problematic. The magazine reported that several test messages were sent in Basque, but there was a shortage of speakers, and the military turned to the Navajo code talkers instead. In 2017, a review of this account couldn’t find the names of the soldiers mentioned in the story under Army archives, although there were some Marines who were of Basque heritage. It’s believed this story might have been made up.

Similar to the Navajo, the Comanche language was also used for a substitution cipher with over 100 code terms. The Comanche people call themselves the Nʉmʉnʉ and call their language the Nʉmʉ Tekwapʉha. For the sake of this podcast, I’m going to call both the people and the language Comanche.

For words that didn’t exist in Comanche, descriptions were used. A bomber plane was a pregnant bird, a tank was a turtle, and Adolf Hitler was a crazy white man. Fourteen Comanche code talkers served in the 4th Infantry Division and were part of the Invasion of Normandy. Most of the Comanche code talkers worked in the Infantry headquarters, and two were assigned to each regiment. Several were wounded in battle. The Comanche code talkers have been credited as saving thousands of Allied lives.

Code-talkers honored by George W. Bush

Charles Chibitty was the longest living Comanche code talker from World War II. Chibitty was born in Oklahoma and enlisted in the 4th Infantry Division. He was assigned to the 4th Signal Company where he and sixteen other Comanche soldiers were tasked with creating a code. The Comanche code talkers fought in the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Chibitty’s first cousin, Pfv. Larry Saupitty, was another code talker who was wounded in action. They were honored by the French government and many years later by the U.S. government

In 2013, Native American code talkers from both world wars and 33 tribes were granted the Congressional Gold Medal from President Obama.

Soldiers with weapons pose for a photo in the jungle
Navajo code-talkers


By far the most famous code talkers from World War II are the Navajo. The Navajo call themselves the Diné, or the Naabeeho´ Dine’é and they call their language Diné Bizaad. For the sake of this podcast, I’m going to refer to both the people and the language as Navajo.

There were many Navajo men who enlisted in the U.S. Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Code-talker Albert Smith said,

“What happened to the Navajo were social conflicts. But this conflict involved Mother Earth being dominated by foreign countries. It was our responsibility to defend her.”

Philip Johnston

Philip Johnston was the son of missionaries who was raised on the Navajo reservation. He was one of the few non-Navajo people in the world who spoke the language fluently. There were about thirty people total in that elite club. He was a World War I veteran, and when World War II began, Johnston started to get an idea.

Navajo is a complicated language with multiple dialects that cannot be understood even by speakers of similar Native languages such as western Apache and Chipeweyan. When the war began, it was still a completely unwritten language.

One of the first Navajo code-talkers, Carl Gorman, said of the language,

“For us, everything is memory, it’s part of our heritage. We have no written language. Our songs, our prayers, our stories, they’re all handed down from grandfather to father to children — and we listen, we hear, we learn to remember everything. It’s part of our training.”

In 1942, Philip Johnston met with the commanding general of the amphibious corps of the pacific fleet, Major General Clayton B. Vogel and talked him into testing his idea.. They ran tests of the Navajo language being used to communicate in simulated combat. The tests showed that the Navajo soldiers could code, send, and decode three lines of English in 20 seconds. It had previously taken machines 30 minutes to do the same.

Men pose in uniform for a formal photo with a sign that says 382nd platoon USMC San Diego 1942
The original Navajo code-talkers

Major General Vogel moved forward with a plan to recruit 200 Navajo men, with the requirement the recruits would have to meet all the same requirements of regular enlistment, and mastery of English and Navajo. 29 Navajo men formed the first group of recruits and took charge of formalizing the code at Camp Pendleton.

Chester Nez, one of the original 29, later said of the experience,

“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?”

The Navajo recruits and the military communications officers assigned Navajo words to modern military phrases, which is a type 2 code. The code started with 211 terms and expanded to 411 by the end of the war. For example, a destroyer would be called a ca-lo, or shark in Navajo. A transport was a dineh-nay-ye-hi, or man-carrier. A mine sweeper would be a cha, or beaver.

The team also assigned Navajo words to English letters in a type 1 code. The formal alphabet was modeled after the Army Navy Phonetic alphabet, where English words represent English letters, for example, Alpha for A, Bravo for B, Charlie for C, Delta for D…

Chester Nez described the process,

“So we start talking about different things, you know, animals, sea creatures, birds, eagles, hawks, and all those domestic animals. And so, why don’t we use those names of different animals — from A to Z. So A, we took a red ant that we live with all the time. B we took a bear, Yogi the Bear, C a cat, D a dog, E an elk, F, fox, G, a goat and so on down the line.”

The original group on Navajo wrote a codebook to teach new recruits. These books were never allowed out of training centers for fear of falling into enemy hands. Trainees memorized the book and practiced during simulation. After the group of 29 proved successful, over 400 more wee recruited.

Victory in the Pacific

The Navajo code talkers were part of every U.S. Marines assault in the Pacific from 1942–1945. Two code-talkers would be assigned to each unit, one to send the code and the other to receive. During their service, the code-talkers carried radio and wire equipment on their backs. When they needed to use them, they had to set up the equipment themselves. One code-talker would be given a message in English and send the message in code to another code-talker. The receiver translated and wrote it down in English. Sometimes the code-talkers just communicated in English when the messages weren’t a security risk.

This work was especially dangerous because the Japanese forces targeted military medics, officers, and radiomen. Six Navajo code talkers worked constantly for two days during the Battle of Iwo Jima and communicated 800 messages with no errors. Major Howard Connor said of them,

“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

During the war, one military official wrote,

“In short, Navajos make good Marines, and I should be very proud to command a unit composed entirely of these people.”

There were several situations where Navajo soldiers were misidentified as other American soldiers as Japanese enemies and threatened. Because of this, some of the code talkers were given personal bodygaurds. According to one of the Navajo soldiers, the bodygaurds also had the secret purpose of protecting the code. If they were possibly going to be captured, the bodyguards were instructed to kill their Navajo partner to make sure the code would not be leaked. Luckily, for everyone involved, this never happened.

Chester Nez

Chester Nez was one of the original 29 code talkers. He was born in New Mexico to the Dibéłizhiní (Black Sheep Clan). Nez’s mother passed away when he was just three years old, and Nez was one of many Native American children who were sent away from their reservation and sent to a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There he was given the English name Chester, and told not to speak his native language, which the U.S. would later rely on to save lives during the war.

Nez enlisted in the U.S. Marines and became part of Recruit Training Platoon 382, with the other 28 Navajo code-talkers, and sent to Camp Elliot in California. Nez was honorably discharged in 1945 as private first class, and returned to serve in the Korean War, where he reached the rank of corporal.

Nez was the last surviving code talker out of the 29, and he received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2001 with four other code talkers from President George W. Bush. Bush said:

“Today, we marked a moment of shared history and shared victory. We recall a story that all Americans can celebrate and every American should know. It is a story of ancient people called to serve in a modern war. It is a story of one unbreakable oral code of the Second World War, messages travelling by field radio on Iwo Jima in the very language heard across the Colorado plateau centuries ago.”

Navajo code was used during the Korean War and early on during the Vietnam War. Five Navajo code talkers died in 2019 and 2020: Alfred K. Newman, Fleming Begaye Sr., John Pinto, who was a New Mexico State Senator, William Tully Brown, and Joe Vandever Sr. Four Navajo code talkers are still alive. Navajo remains the only spoken military code that was never cracked.

The Native American code-talkers used their language to defend a country that repeatedly tried to take their culture, their land, and their language itself away from them. They were not even considered U.S. Citizens until 1924. Some states didn’t grant Native Americans the right to vote until the 1950s.


Carl Gorman

When some Native veterans including code-talkers returned home after the war, many went through traditional ceremonies to help them move past trauma. Code-talker Carl Gorman was a Christian, but still participated in a partial Navajo ceremony. He said,

“ A medicine man that was an old friend suggested that I have one, but I didn’t have the money to pay him to perform it. He agreed to do a one-night sing over me for free. I participated in the sing and felt a great weight leave my mind and body. I felt very rested afterwards. I realized then that I needed to make peace with what I had experienced during the war.”

Code-talker John Brown Jr. said,

“Oh, yes, I’m proud of it, particularly when I shook hands with President Bush in Washington three years ago. He gave me the gold medal. He shook hands with me and then afterwards I spoke. So I spoke in English and then when I got through with my speech I spoke in Navajo, that amounted to about three minutes. I said, ‘You Navajo people that are now on the reservation between the four sacred mountains, I want the people should thank you for using our sacred language. This language was given to us by the Holy People, I don’t know how many thousand years ago. We use it for they, to help win for the United States.”

Code-talker Sam Tso said,

“What I want to do is to thank the whole people of America, the citizens. I learned that they are my people, too. For those that give us recognition through my travel, most of the Anglo people really show appreciation that how we contribute to the Second World War and I really deeply thank them for their recognition.”

Charles Chibitty was the last surviving Comanche code-talker, and he passed away in 2005.

“Charlie’s life has no foreshadowing or ending. As long as wind blows, his life and legacy will continue to twist and turn along courses only wild horses know.”

A gold medal with a depiction of two code talkers using equipment with the inscription Navajo code-talkers by act of congress 2000
The Congressional Gold Medal for the Navajo

The Navajo code talkers remained a secret until 1968. President Ronald Reagan created Navajo Code Talkers Day, August 14, and granted them a Certificate of Recognition in 1982. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the 29 original Navajo code talkers the Congressional Gold Medal, and about 300 additional Navajo code talkers the Congressional Silver Medal. On the back of the medal, there is a message in Navajo that translates to “With the Navajo language they defeated the enemy.”

President George W. Bush presented the awards to four living code talkers and the families of the others in 2001. At the ceremony, President George W. Bush said,

“Gentlemen, your service inspires the respect and admiration of all Americans, and our gratitude is expressed for all time, in the medals it is now my honor to present.”

In 2006, Patty Talahongva directed the documentary “The Power of Words: Native Languages as Weapons of War” for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. This film focused on the Hopi code talkers, who were also recognized by the state of Arizona in 2011.

In 2007, Texas awarded their Medal of Valor posthumously to eighteen Choctaw code talkers. In 2008, President Bush resigned a law recognizing every Native American code talker from both world wars with the Congressional Gold Medal.

In 2013, 33 tribes were presented with the award. Only one code talker, Edmond Harjo, had survived to be presented with it in person. In 2017, three Navajo code talkers and the president of the Navajo Nation were invited to a White House ceremony by President Donald Trump to “pay tribute to the contributions of the young Native Americans recruited by the United States military to create top-secret coded messages used to communicate during World War II battles”, however, several Native American politicians were offended by the President’s statements during the ceremony, where he referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren with the derogatory nickname of “Pocahontas”.

The code-talkers who were punished for speaking their native language as children used it to save an untold number of American lives. Chester Nez summed up the lesson best when he said,

“My wartime experiences developing a code that utilized the Navajo language taught how important our Navajo culture is to our country. For me that is the central lesson: that diverse cultures can make a country richer and stronger.”

Native Americans today face steep disparities in health, economic opportunity, resources, and education. There are ongoing struggles over land rights. It has been a long, slow struggle to grant Native Americans civil rights. Today, many Native American tribes work to preserve their native languages and cultures. There are about 300,000 Navajo tribal members today and about 17,000 Comanche tribal members today. The total number of Native Americans in the United States today is about 6.79 million, which is about 2% of the total population, and it’s growing. Today, over 21,000 Native Americans are on active duty, and there are 183,000 living Native veterans. Native Americans serve at a higher rate than any other demographic.

And the definition of Native American warrior is still evolving. Native veteran and history professor Jeff Means said,

“A warrior was always somebody who fought for their native nation. For the most part, that was militaristically. But now that has expanded to fighting for your native nation in any context: legally, socially, culturally, politically. Women are taking a tremendously active position in today’s battles because it’s no longer just about military prowess. It’s about intellectual prowess. It’s about cultural prowess. It’s wonderful to see so many native people from all walks of life fighting for their rights and sovereignty.”

And the fight continues. Many Native Americans who joined the U.S. military from its first days did so with the idea that their sacrifice and defense of the country would one day lead to the country truly respecting and honoring them and their communities, and not just with a gold medal. Giving them the rights that they deserved, and the principles that had been promised in America of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights to their land, their cultural practices, their language, to autonomy, to their resources, and to equal healthcare, and economic and educational opportunities. Progress on Native rights has been slow, but it goes on, and hopefully someday, the United States can fulfill this promise to its first people who have time and time again represented the very best of America.

A 1943 painting by Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma title “First Furlough”

Thank you for listening to Campfire Stories: Astonishing History. If you enjoyed this show, please don’t forget to subscribe. If you’re listening on a podcast app, I’d love it if you leave a positive review. If you’re listening on YouTube, I encourage you to like this video and leave a comment with an idea for another episode or anything else you’d like to say. For this episode, I’ve linked some great Native American organizations that you can support. Have a great rest of your day, campers, and I’ll see you back around the campfire soon!

Native American Organizations to Support:
Native American Rights Fund
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA
Association on American Indian Affairs
First Nations Development Institute
National Indian Child Care Association
Redhawk Arts Council
Native Partnerships
Native American Heritage Association
American Indian College Fund
Native Wellness Institute

Sources Include:



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