Pulitzer Prize winning Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday dated the death of much that was Kiowa from July 20, 1890, when troops from Fort Sill rode to the great bend of the Washita to end the Sun Dance by force. Momaday’s grandmother was there that day, and today he has her memory—as most of us carry a blood memory of times before the crucible the colonists term “melting pot”—but not the Kiowa language.
So it was that over 50 years later, when the United States had need of American Indians to facilitate battlefield communication, recruiters had difficulty finding Indians who still were fluent in their indigenous languages. The demise of Indian languages was part and parcel of the forced assimilation policy and the Indian boarding school movement. Forced assimilation was sometimes motivated by the best intentions, as expressed in the dictum attributed to Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School: “Kill the Indian in him to save the man.”
In pursuit of acculturation, the Navajo were rounded up by Kit Carson and imprisoned at the Bosque Redondo concentration camp, also known as Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where they died in great numbers. In order to gain their release, the tribe had to surrender all of their children between the ages of six and sixteen for “an English education.” It was only in spite of the best efforts of the United States Government that the Navajo language was still available for battlefield communication in World War II.
The idea of using Native languages to communicate on open radio channels and field telephones was not invented in World War II. Cherokee and Choctaw served as code talkers in both world wars, as Lakota, Creek, Menominee, Chippewa, Navajo, and Hopi did in World War II. The Meskwaki people in Iowa stood out because 16 percent of their entire population enlisted in 1941 to serve as code talkers.
Adolf Hitler, a World War I veteran who knew the code talker tactic, sent a team of about 30 German anthropologists to the U.S. between the wars to learn Indian languages. By the time war broke out, they reported what they had been able to put together, but the task was simply too much for them to assimilate in the time allotted.
Most but not all tribes simply relayed messages in their Native languages, but code talkers in the Pacific Theater made critical contributions to the island hopping campaigns against the Japanese, using a code within a code that was created by them and continually revised during the war. These code talkers were from Dinetah, Navajo land, and there are few places on earth more unlike the tropical Pacific islands where the code talkers wrote their names in history, or would have if they had not remained largely silent, as the U.S. government demanded.
The code talkers remained rumors in their own time until the U.S. government finally declassified the code talker program in 1968. After that, recognition snowballed.
In 1973, Doris A. Paul published The Navajo Code Talkers.
In 1989, the French government recognized and honored the Comanche code talkers.
In 1992, Margaret T. Bixler published Winds of Freedom: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.
In 2000, Congress authorized and President Bill Clinton signed an act to mint gold medals for the 29 original Navajo code talkers and silver medals for all code talkers. The next year, President George W. Bush personally presented gold medals to four of the five living original code talkers, the fifth being too ill to attend.
In 2003, William C. Meadows published The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II.
In 2007, 18 Choctaw code talkers were awarded the Texas Medal of Valor for WWII service. Posthumously.
The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 authorized medals for all Indian code talkers, with designs distinctive to each tribe.
Finally, in 2011, Chester Nez published Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.
It was in 2012 that Hollywood released the code talkers’ story, and the surviving code talkers had mixed feelings about the dramatization offered to the public in Windtalkers.