Code Talkers to Better Walkers: How American Indians Have Helped Fight Wars and Obesity

August 21, 2013

In honor of Navajo Code Talkers Day this past week on August 14, Government Book Talk explores some Federal publications that utilize American Indian traditions and culture to combat serious problems of the past and present.

Native Code Talkers in World War I

“Code talkers” became the term used to describe Native American soldiers from various Indian tribes who communicated on radios, telephones and telegraph during World Wars I and II. They spoke in their own languages and dialects, all of which were indecipherable by enemy forces. Because few non-Indians knew these difficult native languages, which in many cases had no written form, they provided ideal codes for relaying secret operational orders.

WWI-Choctaw-Code-Talkers-w-FlagImage: The Choctaw Code Talkers enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War I even though their lack of citizenship exempted them from the draft. (U.S. Army photo)

In France during World War I, the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, had a company of Indians who spoke 26 languages and dialects. Two Indian officers were selected to supervise a communications system staffed by 18 Choctaw. The team transmitted messages relating to troop movements and their own tactical plans in their native tongue. They helped the American Expeditionary Force win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in France, the final big German push of the war.

Soldiers from other tribes, including the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage and Yankton Sioux also were enlisted to communicate as code talkers. Previous to their arrival in France, the Germans had broken every American code used, resulting in the deaths of many Soldiers. However, the German Army— which captured about one out of four messengers—never broke the Indians’ “code.”

More Native Code Talkers are Used in World War II

After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, more Armed Forces used code talking units with each unit composed of members of a specific American Indian tribe.

Navajo Code Talkers

The United States Marines recruited several hundred Navajos for duty in the Pacific region. The Marines chose these Navajos for their ability to speak their native language, Diné bizaad (Navajo), for code talking.

Philip Johnston, a son of missionaries who had grown up on the Navajo reservation, originally recommended Navajo to the Marines as a language well suited for cryptology. In a memo to the Commandant of the Marine Corps in early 1942, Navajo was declared uniquely suited to succeed more than some other languages proposed for use. At that time, most Navajos were fluent in their native language. The Marines were lucky; in 1942 only an estimated 28 non-Navajo Americans could speak the extremely difficult Navajo language!

Hitler had heard of the possibility of using Native American languages for codes prior to the United States’ entry into the war, and had sent a number of German anthropologists to the United States prior to WWII to learn Native American languages. Navajo was reportedly the only language the German anthropologists had yet to learn. Navajo also benefited by being so unlike other Native American languages that there was no language similar to it. If you’re fluent in Spanish, you might be able to muddle along in Portuguese after some basic lessons. Navajo has no analog.

Navajo-Code-Talkers-in-JungleIn May 1942, the first Navajo recruits attended boot camp; they then moved to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California, to create the Navajo Code Talkers Dictionary. The Marines trained approximately 400 Navajos as code talkers. To relay the messages they were encoding, they had to learn to operate three types of radios. At that time the code talkers called themselves “radiomen”.

The developers of the Navajo code modeled the alphabet portion on the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet. That alphabet uses words to represent letters, e.g., Fox for the letter F. In the Navajo code, Ne-Ahs-Jah is Navajo for Owl, which stood for the letter O. To spell the word Navy, the code talker might say, “Tsah (Needle, or N), Wol-La-Chee (Ant, or A), A-Keh-Di-Glini (Victor, or V), Tsah-As-Zih (Yucca, or Y)”.

The Navajo Marines also chose Navajo words to represent about 450 frequently used terms in the military. It was hard. According to code talker Wilfred Billey, “one of the most difficult parts of forming the Navajo code was using it to relay precise information, such as coordinates or troop movements because several words in the Navajo language have various meanings” (May 22, 2003, “Navajo Code Talker Continues Oral Tradition”, Marine Core Logistics Base Albany).

Some of the choices were very creative. Navajo is a classic language that didn’t originally include terms like “tank”, so the Navajo Marines dubbed it “Chay-Da-Gahi”, or tortoise. The Navajo Code Talkers Dictionary, published by the Navy years later after it was declassified, showed the versatility of the code’s creators. The code was so effective in World War 2, it was also used in the Korean War, being phased out before Vietnam.

In fact, at Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, ‘Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima’” (Navajo Code Talkers: WWII Fact Sheet). During that battle alone, the radiomen transmitted 800 messages without error.

Comanche, Sioux and Hopi Code Talkers for the Army

Although the Navajo tribe is the one most remembered for its contributions to the World War II communications code units, the US military also used Basque, Comanche, Sioux, Hopi and a number of other American Indian languages as code languages. Basque was rarely used because there were native Basque speakers in Europe which made the U.S. military wary of using it more widely.  However, because the various Army units of Code Talkers were so secret, their very existence was kept classified until the 1970s or later.

American-Indian-Code-Talkers-LanguagesImage: List of American Indian Code Talkers’ languages and the numbers of tribal members who served, if known. There were at least two Code Talkers from each tribe. Source: National Museum of the American Indian’s website.

Army-Signal-Corps_9780160453519The US Army’s Signal Corps is the military branch that develops, tests, provides, and manages communications and information systems support for the command and control of combined US Armed Forces, including code talkers. You can read the history of the Army Signal Corps in Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

The US Army’s 4th Signal Company, also known as the Code Talkers, used seventeen Comanche Code Talkers. Like the Choctaws of World War I, and the Navajos in the Pacific Theater, the Comanche Code Talkers used their native language to prevent the enemies of the European Theater from intercepting messages of the allied troops during World War II. The unit was instrumental during the Normandy invasion.

Sioux code talkers, composed of Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota native soldiers or “L.D.N.’s”, spoke their native “dialects” (languages) which were understood by each native soldier in the unit. On December 19, 2000, Congressman John Thune said of the Sioux code talkers’ contribution:

“It is important for us to honor these veterans whose contributions have, until recently, been ignored. Often sent out on their own to provide communications with headquarters on enemy location and strength, they sometimes spent 24 hours in headphones without sleep or food. Many endured terrible conditions without protection from the enemy. Using three Sioux languages Lakota, Nakota and Dakota, the Sioux Code Talkers were able to communicate messages the enemy was unable to crack.”

The Hopi tribe also helped in the communications coding efforts. Eleven Hopi men developed a highly secret code language which they used to assist US Army intelligence in the Marshall Islands, New Caledonia and the Philippines during the Second World War. Again, because of the super top-secret nature of their work for Army Intelligence, the Hopi Code Talkers’ contribution was not officially recognized until April 26, 2012, on the inaugural Hopi Code Talkers Recognition Day.

Applying American Indian Traditions to the War against Obesity

The United States Government continues to utilize Native American language and traditions to solve important problems of the day. For example, with the public health issue of childhood obesity and diabetes rising to dangerous levels in the US, the Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Native Diabetes Wellness Program (Wellness Program) and the Indian Health Service (IHS) Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention recently teamed up with the Tribal Leaders Diabetes Committee (TLDC) to produce the award-winning Eagle Book series.

The developers of this series realized that the old, traditional American Indian diet and activity levels were in line with today’s medical recommendations to eat less processed food and more fruits and vegetables as well as exercising more. Thus, they worked with Native groups to incorporate traditional American Indian story-telling techniques and themes to promote increased physical activity such as walking and playing as well as making healthier—and more natural—food choices to reduce obesity and prevent diabetes.

Coyote-and-the-Turtles'-Dream-9780160913174 Preventing childhood obesity and diabetesThe common Native American theme of the tortoise/ turtle used by the American Indian code talkers resurfaces in the newest book in the series, Coyote and the Turtle’s Dream.  In this middle school-age mystery/ adventure book, the wise elderly box turtle helps the mischievous Coyote and the Indian reservation town’s residents solve a mystery to foil the plans of a fossil poacher while teaching the underlying message about healthy eating and increased physical activity.

With the first four books aimed at elementary schoolers– Through the Eyes of the Eagle, Knees Lifted High, Plate Full of Color, and Tricky Treats and the next book for middle schoolers– Coyote and the Turtle’s Dream– the Eagle Book series has been snapped up by teachers, nutritionists, librarians, parents and children’s health providers all over the country as an effective tool to teach children about healthier eating habits and increasing activity while also instilling an appreciation for Native culture which extols respect for elders and living in harmony with nature.

You can read more about the Eagle Book series on our Government Book Talk blog post entitled: “Native Traditions Help Kids Unplug, Read and Be Healthy.”

How Can I Obtain These Publications?

EBOOKS:

PRINT EDITIONS:

About the author(s): Adapted by Government Book Talk Editor-in-Chief and GPO Promotions & Ecommerce Manager, Michele Bartram, from an original blog post by Jennifer K. Davis from GPO’s Library Services & Content Management Division that supports the Federal Depository Libraries Program (FDLP).


Native Traditions Help Kids Unplug, Read and Be Healthy

March 1, 2013

Kids Take NEA Reader's Oath on National Read Across America DayToday, March 1, 2013, is the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day which kicks off Read Across America Week where people are encouraged to read to children and children are encouraged to read for themselves. And tomorrow is the birthday of Dr Seuss, who is known for writing children’s books. Coincidentally, from sunset tonight March 1 to sunset March 2 has also been declared National Day of Unplugging, when we are urged to unplug ourselves from all our gadgets and technology such as smartphones, laptops, and MP3 players.

Image: School children take NEA’s Read Across America Reader’s Oath. Source: NEA

Thus, it’s a perfect time to read to and with your kids. Reading events, both public and private, are being held nationwide, from schools and public libraries to houses of worship and homes as adults and children unplug and read.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Native Diabetes Wellness Program (Wellness Program), in collaboration with the Indian Health Service (IHS) Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention and the Tribal Leaders Diabetes Committee (TLDC), created the perfect series of children’s books to help encourage kids to read and live a healthy lifestyle.

CDC-Eagle-Book-Series for child diabetes prevention nutrition and physical fitnessCalled the Eagle Book Series. all of the stories reflect long-held traditional values of American Indian / Alaska Native people – respect, gratitude, and generosity – while teaching the universal wisdom of healthy eating and physical activity. Throughout the series, a young Native boy and his friends learn about healthy habits from Mr. Eagle, Miss Rabbit, and Coyote.

Vividly brought to life by the colorful illustrations of talented American Indian artists Patrick Rolo (Bad River Band of Ojibwe, Wisconsin) and Lisa A. Fifield (Black Bear Clan of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin), these charming and educational stories by Georgia Perez have become the award-winning Eagle Book series:

  1. Through the Eyes of the Eagle,
  2. Knees Lifted High,
  3. Plate Full of Color, and
  4. Tricky Treats.

Measuring 16 X 19 inches, these books are sized perfectly for reading to a group of first through third grade children at school, daycare, in a library, or at home.

Thru-Eyes-of-the-EagleThrough the Eyes of the Eagle

“Through the Eyes of the Eagle” is the first book in the Eagle Book Series and introduces the character of Mr. Eagle. Mr. Eagle befriends Rain That Dances, the primary child character in the book, to educate him about diabetes and how the lifestyles and health of the people have changed. Mr. Eagle has come to remind the children of the healthy ways of their ancestors so that they can be strong and healthy again.

Knees-Lifted-HighKnees Lifted High

“Knees Lifted High,” the second book in the Eagle Book Series, continues the story with Mr. Eagle and Rain That Dances, and introduces a new character, Thunder Cloud, Rain That Dances’ best friend. Mr. Eagle shares the knowledge that lack of movement (inadequate physical activity) contributes to development of type 2 diabetes. He encourages the boys to find ways of being active just as their ancestors were. He elicits ideas from the boys on ways to get their bodies up and moving

Plate-Full-of-colorPlate Full of Color

“Plate Full of Color,” the third book in the Eagle Book Series, introduces Miss Rabbit and the boys’ friend, Little Hummingbird. Miss Rabbit s a helper. She wants to teach the young children about ways they can prevent diabetes and help adults learn about preventing and controlling the disease. Rain That Dances, Thunder Cloud and Little Hummingbird listen to Miss Rabbit explain how Mother Earth provides wonderfully healthy things to eat.

Tricky-TreatsTricky Treats

“Tricky Treats,” the fourth book in the Eagle Book Series, continues the theme of healthy food by encouraging children to choose nutritional value in foods and beverages. This story introduces the character of Coyote who initially challenges the healthy messages offered by Mr. Eagle.

Tricksters, such as the coyote, are traditional characters in American Indian stories and literature who cannot be trusted because of their jokes and tricks. The trickster often comes around in the end as in this story. In the book, Mr. Eagle encourages the children to choose healthy snacks and not be tricked into using foods and beverages that are not healthy for them. Healthy foods are identified as “everyday foods,” while less optimal choices are described as “sometimes foods.” Mr. Eagle teaches the children about food safety and the importance of not taking things that belong to someone else.

NEA has a Read Across America Reader’s Oath by Debra Angstead, Missouri-NEA, a Read Across America song and this wonderful Dr. Seuss-inspired Read Across America poem that says it better than we can:

You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild,
To pick up a book and read with a child.
You’re never too busy, too cool, or too hot,
To pick up a book and share what you’ve got.

In schools and communities,
Let’s gather around,
Let’s pick up a book,
Let’s pass it around.

There are kids all around you,
Kids who will need
Someone to hug,
Someone to read.

Come join us March 1st
Your own special way
And make this America’s
Read to Kids Day.

How can I buy the Eagle Book Series?

About the Author:  Michele Bartram is Promotions Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division in Washington, DC, and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore (http://bookstore.gpo.gov) and promoting Federal government content to the public.


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