Intro Native Languages Boarding Schools Code Talking Coming Home Survival Recognition

Native Languages | LIVING THE CULTURE

A group of Lakota (Sioux) Indian leaders who were involved in negotiations to end war between the United States and the Lakota in the 1800s. 1

Native American tribes have lived and thrived upon the North American landscape for thousands of years—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 tribe’s language.

Importance of American Indian Languages

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., Southern Cheyenne and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma; Founding Director, National Museum of the American Indian

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.

This map shows the location and numbers of American Indian languages historically spoken in North America.

Map of North American Indian languages
Map showing the historical Native languages and language families of North America. 2

Languages Used in Code Talking

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

Here are the 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.

World War I World War II
  • Cherokee
  • Cheyenne
  • Choctaw (15)
  • Comanche
  • Osage
  • Yankton Sioux
  • Assiniboine
  • Cherokee
  • Chippewa/Oneida (17)
  • Choctaw
  • Comanche (17)
  • Hopi (11)
  • Kiowa
  • Menominee
  • Muscogee/Creek and Seminole
  • Navajo (about 420)
  • Pawnee
  • Sac and Fox/Meskwaki (19)
  • Sioux – Lakota and Dakota dialects
This map shows the names of the tribes and the communities (when known) of the World War I American Indian telephone squads. National Museum of the American Indian, Office of Education. 8
This map shows the names of the tribes and the communities (when known) of the World War II Code Talkers. National Museum of the American Indian, Office of Education. 9

Navajo Language

The seal of the Navajo Nation.4

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 Navajos 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 Navajos:

Comanche Language

The seal of the Comanche Nation. 5

During World War II, 17 Comanches served as Code Talkers. The Comanche people call themselves the “NUMUNUU.” “NUMU TEKWAPUHA” is the Comanche term for the Comanche language. Even though the Comanches are a modern and contemporary people, their heritage is important to them. The Comanche language is still spoken today, but not by all tribal members. The tribe has created language and cultural preservation programs that have produced numerous language instructional materials.

More about today’s Comanches:

Carl Gorman

In 1985, Carl Gorman stands outside the house in which he was born in 1907. 6

Carl Gorman was born in 1907 in Chinle, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. According to the way that Navajo people introduce themselves, Carl was of the Black Sheep Clan and born for the Towering House Clan. This identifies his lineage on both his mother and father’s sides. English and Navajo were spoken in Carl’s boyhood home, and he learned both languages. As a young boy, Carl 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 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 (Power of a Navajo: Carl Gorman, the Man and His Life by Henry and Georgia Greenberg, 1996)

Charles Chibitty

pia toya [BEE-ah-DOY-uh], Comanche. Big mountain, an important place to the Comanches.
Pia toya, or Big Mountain (Mt. Scott), an important place to the Comanche people. 7

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. Charles 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, Mr. Chibitty was the last surviving hereditary chief of the tribe, descending on his mother's side from Chief Ten Bears.

Reflection and Discussion Questions about Language

Workbook: The Beauty of Languages

Be creative with Navajo and Comanche words.

Words in American Indian languages are often more than just a name for a person, place, or thing. Sometimes they have deeper meanings that tell a story. Just one word or a short phrase can explain some part of the people’s history or their relationship with the land.

Write a poem

Nilch’itsoh [nil-CHI-tso] is a Navajo word that means big wind. According to the Navajo Code Talker dictionary, it’s also the name for the month of November.

Here is a poem that uses the word Nilch’itsoh:

A big wind,
The wind of November,
A wolf that shreds leaves from trees,
A howl that keeps us close to the fire.

pia toya [BEE-ah-DOY-uh], Comanche. Big mountain, an important place to the Comanches.
Pia toya [BEE-ah-DOY-uh] is the Comanche term for Big Mountain (Mt. Scott), an important place to the Comanche people. 8
Toya soni [DOY-uh-SAW-nee], Comanche. The grass around the mountain
Toya soni [DOY-uh-SAW-nee] is the Comanche term for “the grass around the mountain.” Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. 9
tse-yi [TSAY-yee], Navajo. Inside the rock (a canyon, as in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, an important place to the Navajos).
Tse-yi [TSAY-yee] is the Navajo term for “inside the rock,” or a canyon. Canyon de Chelly National Monument is an important place to the Navajos. 10

Now, choose a word and picture from above to write a poem about. Write the poem in your workbook.


  1. Photograph by Jon C.H. Grabill. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-748
  2. Map courtesy of Ives Goddard and the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.
  3. Maps by National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2006
  4. Seal courtesy of the Navajo Nation
  5. Flag courtesy of the Comanche Nation
  6. Photograph by Georgia Greenberg. Courtesy of Carl Gorman Collection
  7. Photograph by E. Scott. Courtesy of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
  8. Photograph by E. Scott. Courtesy of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
  9. Photograph by E. Scott. Courtesy of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
  10. Photograph by Paul J. Woolf. National Museum of the American Indian, S04915