During both world wars, Native American tribes played an invaluable role: They used their language to protect United States’ radio messages.
On Thursday, November 29, the Mountain Road Library will hold a Code Talkers program through the National Cryptologic Museum.
“I think most people find it interesting,” said Jennifer Wilcox, the educational coordinator at the National Cryptologic Museum. “They’ve heard about it, they’ve heard stories, and now they get the truth about it, which is what they want to come out and listen to.”
The first use of Code Talkers was at the end of World War I with the Choctaw tribe, Wilcox said. A captain was walking near his troops and heard two of them speaking in a language he didn’t understand.
“They were Choctaw and talking to each other in their native language,” Wilcox said. “He thought, ‘Hey, if I get them on the radio, the Germans will hear it, but they won’t understand it.’ That’s what he did.”
It worked so well at the end of WWI that the practice continued to WWII. During WWII, the Marine Corps strictly used Navajo Code Talkers, while the Army used more than 30 tribes’ languages, Wilcox said.
“The Navajo is a very, very difficult language. If you don’t hear it as an infant, you will not learn to speak it properly,” Wilcox said. “It also wasn’t a written language at that time. The Marine Corps thought this was probably the most secure of all the Native American tribal languages.”
During her presentations, Wilcox said her favorite part is presenting the different code words. She plays a game with the audience where she gives a code word, and the audience has to guess the accompanying military term. Wilcox even has a G.I. Joe doll that speaks the code words, and she brings it to her presentations.
“That’s a lot of fun because the connections are not always obvious,” Wilcox said. “They are there because the Navajo had to memorize everything, so there had to be some connection so they could remember. It’s kind of fun to play the game and teach the connections between the code word and the military term.”
Her go-to example is “tortoise,” which was the code word for “tank.” The connection is that both are slow, green and have a hard shell.
Though the Code Talkers have been featured in movies like “Windtalkers,” which came out in 2002, the history is largely untold.
“They come from a culture where they don’t brag. They’re proud of what they did, but they don’t brag about it,” Wilcox said. “If they weren’t out there tooting their own horn, the military wasn’t out there saying, ‘Hey, look what we did.’ At the time, they didn’t know whether they would have to call on these people again.”
The Navajo Code Talkers presentation will be at Mountain Road Library on Thursday, November 29. The presentation starts at 6:30pm and runs for roughly 30 minutes.