These days, cryptography is heavily based in computer science and coding to encrypt information and keep it secure. An early iteration of cryptography was integral to war time efforts, to ensure military offences were kept secret. A group of young Navajo ‘Code Talkers’ were enlisted during the war to take part in this cryptography, using a specialised version of their native tongue that only this select group of Code Talkers could understand.
The Navajo Code Talkers were once just a group of 29 young Navajo males, put on a bus bound for Marine Corps training in 1942. In World War I, Navajo men were enlisted in the army to communicate battle plans via telephone. The idea for the Code Talkers in the World War II Marine Corps built on this. The men developed a coded version of their language that read like nonsense to any Navajo men that were not trained as Code Talkers.
They were chosen to create the code as there wasn’t much documentation or framework for learning the Navajo languages. Enemy troops would therefore be less likely to break the code. After the code was created, coding schools were set up to increase the task force, and over 400 Navajo men were trained as Code Talkers.
Growing up marginalised, American Indians were forbidden from speaking their native language and were given English names. They were forced to assimilate to the new American culture and some were later enlisted in the Code Talkers. One of these men was Chester Nez. Chester’s original first name was different; he was assigned the name ‘Chester’ after President Chester A. Arthur.
“All I thought when I went in the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform. Go and shoot some of those Japanese. That’s what I thought; but later on they told us differently, you know different style, purpose of why they got us in.” said Chester, one of the original 29 Code Talkers.
Despite the many lives saved by the Code Talkers, they were treated as second class citizens upon return home. American Indians weren’t allowed to vote until 1948, and had to carry an identity card with them wherever they went.
Today, we remember the Code Talkers for what they were; American war heroes that saved endless lives. Their service and success would not have been possible without their culture, and serves as a reminder of the value of preserving heritage and culture, and the respect deserved to America’s first peoples.
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