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Native Words, Native Warriors

The National Museum of the American Indian honors American Indian Code Talkers. This is a companion website to the traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition, Native Words, Native Warriors.

Two Navajo Code Talkers
Private First Class Preston Toledo (left) and Private First Class Frank Toledo, Navajo Code Talkers. 1

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. The United States military asked them to develop secret battle communications based on their languages—and America’s enemies never deciphered the coded messages they sent. “Code Talkers,” as they came to be known after World War II, are twentieth-century American Indian warriors and heroes who significantly aided the victories of the United States and its allies.

Protecting the Homelands

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"Attack of the Seminoles on the Block House." Many American Indian tribes fought against the United States to defend their lands and families. 2

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 the 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.

Most 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.

Twentieth-Century Warriors

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 a special code within their languages that they used in combat to send important messages.

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, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
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, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

Meet Code Talker Carl Gorman

Carl Gorman, 1942. 3

Carl Gorman was a Navajo Code Talker in World War II. Carl 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.

Meet Code Talker Charles Chibitty

Comanche Code Talker Charles Chibitty attending the dedication of the Comanche Nation Memorial to the Comanche Code Talkers in Lawton, Oklahoma. 4

Charles Chibitty was a Comanche Code Talker in World War II. Charles 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.

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  1. Defense Department Photo. Courtesy of National Archives, 127-GR-1375-7875
  2. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. PGA - Gray & James, LC-USZC4-2398
  3. Courtesy of Carl Gorman Collection
  4. Photograph by Chester Cowen. Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society, Research Division, Cowen Collection 19687.IN.CO.28.6