Almost 40 years ago, in August of 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared a “National Navajo Code Talkers Day,” to honor the Native Marines who were instrumental in securing and hastening Allied victory in the Pacific theater during WWII. 

The story of the Code Talkers has been memorialized in Hollywood movies, and it is a captivating story. As early as WWI, the military enlisted Native Americans to create codes used in radio transmission. As WWII progressed, 29 Navajos were recruited to create an unbreakable code to be used once again to relay classified military instruction in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

With little instruction, these Diné men used everyday words to develop the code. For example, the words łóóʼ tsoh, meaning big fish, designated a battleship. And ayęęzhii, or egg, represented a bomb. The Japanese were baffled and could not even approximate the sounds, much less break the code. 

All codes were memorized — never written, with hundreds of messages relayed in one sitting. These codes were not done remotely, from the safety of a base, but in the heat of battle. Utah’s state Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, while proposing a bill to honor the legacy of the Code Talkers, commented: “From 1942–45, Navajo radio operators transmitted the code throughout the dense jungles and exposed beachheads of the Pacific Theater, passing more than 800 error-free messages in 48 hours at Iwo Jima alone.” 

But to appreciate the true heroism of those men, we must also step back from the glory and excitement of battle and understand what was asked of them, both before and after the war. 

Most of these men would have been taken as children, sometimes forcibly, to boarding schools, where there were strict punishments for speaking even one word of Navajo. The government literally attempted to beat the Native out of them, with the motto, “kill the Indian, save the man.” A short while later, these same Navajo were asked to use their sacred language, the one previously treated as shameful, to help the country.

One may wonder why they’d be willing to risk their lives for a country that often disregarded their own. Native Americans possess what they call “the Warrior Spirit.”  It helps explain why they would willingly use their language, which they consider sacred, to help.

Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux put it this way: “The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children — the future of humanity.” Despite their treatment, 400 Navajo men felt compelled to protect and serve as Code Talkers, with thousands of other Native Americans serving in other capacities. 

Once the war ended, other marines received discharge papers that listed their “occupational speciality,” like mechanic, electrician or radio operator. These designations helped them get jobs.

But the government kept the Code Talker assignments classified, fearing they might need to use the same codes should the U.S. go to war again. Thus, Navajo Code Talkers were required to keep what they did a secret, even from their families, and so their service records did not reflect the level of skill, intelligence and bravery they had exhibited during the war. They could not seek jobs in communications. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Code Talker program was declassified and they could finally reveal how they had helped end the war. But recognition was slow to happen. Fourteen years after declassification, Reagan dedicated Aug. 14 as Code Talker Day; in 2001, the government finally awarded congressional medals to the Native veterans. Of the 29 original, only five were still living. (Click here to watch a Code Talker share his story.)

But none of these Code Talkers accepted the challenge and risked their lives for glory. These men embodied the warrior spirit, a dedication to honor, to protect, to fight for the land they have loved and lived on for thousands of years, sometimes at an extremely high price. Their military sacrifices really span lifetimes, not just WWII, and we are honored to remember them. 

Brenda Beyal, a Navajo/Diné, leads the Native American Curriculum Initiative for BYU ARTS Partnership. In 2016, Beyal was honored by the Utah Education Network as an American Graduate Champion.

Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor for the Native American Curriculum for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and The Exponent.