Attiya’s Essay

Also participating in the Bougainville operation in December 1943 were (left to right, front row): Pvt Earl Johnny, Pvt Kee Etsicitty, Pvt John V. Goodluck, and PFC David Jordan. Rear row, left to right: Pvt Jack C. Morgan, Pvt George H. Kirk, Pvt Tom H. Jones, Cpl Henry Bake, Jr.

Also participating in the Bougainville operation in December 1943 were (left to right, front row): Pvt Earl Johnny, Pvt Kee Etsicitty, Pvt John V. Goodluck, and PFC David Jordan. Rear row, left to right: Pvt Jack C. Morgan, Pvt George H. Kirk, Pvt Tom H. Jones, Cpl Henry Bake, Jr.

World War II was the last time the United States was completely mobilized and because of this race and ethnic identities were affected dramatically. The United States and the Navajo Nation have always had strained relations starting from the very beginning of the American Colonization. The conflict between Navajos and the US government having reached its zenith in the 1864 Long Walk to Fort Sumner where the Navajo population was marched off of their homeland. After the Long Walk the United States government passed assimilation legislation that forbade the speaking of Native languages, practicing native religions and dressing in traditional clothing. In the early 20th century, children from the Navajo reservation were given “Christian” names and education. The Navajo language is complex and is difficult to learn and like any language if it is not used, it dies. As the children returned from the boarding schools having been forbidden to speak Navajo there was a decline in language proficiency. Moving the timeline from World War I and the interwar period to World War II, the workforce vacuum led many Navajos off the reservation and into the bigger American war machine as soldiers, nurses, and factory workers. The way that Navajos view themselves as American has changed because of World War II.

The Navajo Reservation is now one of the largest and most stable reservations in the United States spanning from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. Traditionally the Navajo people have been livestock and sheep raisers.[1] During the 1930s and 1940s there was a livestock reduction

Map of the Navajo Nation  retrieved from

Map of the Navajo Nation retrieved from

placed on the Navajos. What this means is there was a federally sanctioned survey done in 1928 that concluded that there was not enough space on the reservation for Navajos and it needed to be enlarged.[2]  Instead of allowing more space for agriculture and allotting more space for the reservation, the government reduced the livestock by 60% which led to severe poverty.[3] The consequences of an event like this had not been felt since the Long Walk and the forced assimilations in boarding schools. The livestock reduction humiliated Navajos and left some bitter about government intervention on reservation life. The Navajo Nation is a self-governing body that resides within the United States, however it must still followed federally regulated mandates, treaties, draft and legislation. The Nation’s ability to self-govern is similar to how local and state governments run in other parts of the country.

Before World War II life day to day life was isolated. Economic opportunities were almost entirely limited to the Reservation. In fact it was so isolated that during World War II Navajo girls got waitressing jobs at the famous Southwestern Fred Harvey Restaurants off of the reservation and it was hailed as a major social breakthrough by the local newspaper.[4] Being hired at one of the infamous Fred Harvey Restaurant is no small feat because Fred Harvey Restaurants were symbols of the white hospitality industry in the Southwest. The quality of education was so low that in some ways joining the United States Military, either Army or Marine Corps was the best option that many Navajo could take.

When the draft was used in the beginning of World War II, there was a long and complicated debate over where Native Americans fit in the draft system. The United States did not grant citizenship to Native Americans until 1924 and even so, the United States had to reaffirm their citizen status in 1940 with the Nationality Act. Not only did the act state Native Americans were American citizens, but that they were now required to serve in the draft. But even before the draft, many Navajos had enlisted for service. Not only was military service an opportunity to provide financial stability but it also provided a chance to travel, and experience things they may have otherwise never known. The Navajo Nation itself even declared war on Germany and Japan and supported the United States involvement in the war.[5] Before Pearl Harbor, the Navajo Nation declared that they would be as ready as they were in 1918 to help defend the United States Government against the enemy. In 1940 the Navajo Nation declared that there exists no purer concentration of Americanism than among the First Americans.[6]

The tough reality of warfare like irregular hours, tough food, and lack of privacy were somethings that Navajos in the military adjusted to quickly.[7] Navajo soldiers and Marines were better able to distinguish themselves as equal to and maybe better than their white counterparts as efficient soldiers and Marines. While during World War II the United States had segregated units for Black and White soldiers and Marines, Navajo Marines were integrated into White units. There were about 3,600 Navajos in the United States Army, Navy and Marine Corps and about a dozen women in the Women’s Army Corps.[8] The Navajos in the Marine Corps performed a unique task specific to their language.

In April 1942 First Sergeant Frank Shinn came to Fort Defiance, Arizona with hopes of recruiting 30 Navajos for a specific task. Recruits had to be fluent in both English and Navajo and be between the ages of 17 and 32. The name of the unit was the 382nd Platoon. Camp Elliott is where the code was originally developed. The original 29 Marines were instructed to create an alphabet based off of words that they were familiar with like Ant (Wol-a-chee) for A and Bear (Shush) for B.[9]  Navajo as a language is a guttural and tonal language meaning there is very slight variation between words whether it is being inflected upwards or downwards the meaning of the world could change drastically. Because of the way that the language is constructed, phonetic spelling does not even give the best description of what the words sounds like. During the war, the alphabet, code, and anything concerning the code was kept entirely classified. The members of the Code Talkers were not allowed to disclose any information to anyone about their task, not their peers or even family.  One of the more famous times that the Navajo code proved effective was in 1943 within the Bougainville trenches. Obviously not every communication was sent through Navajo code, sometimes the Shackle was used and it was inefficient because the message was not able to be fully translated, Bill Toledo, a Code Talker, requested the order, received and transcribed it within 5 minutes by himself.[10] With any culture language is integral and it was a major sense of pride and a testament to their Americanness to fight alongside white soldiers be praised for service, and use their language as a vehicle for communication during military campaigns which was unbreakable.Old Radio - TBX-6 -used by Code Talkers

Navajo Code Talker Radio

Part of a transmitter used by Code Talkers during WWII

However there was a major security breach in 1943 by the Arizona Highways. A five page expose was published explaining what the Navajos in the Marines were doing in detail including the recruitment start and even how the language and code were used.[11] This event sparked major investigation by Marine Corp personnel on who and why this top secret information was leaked because it endangered not only the code’s security but the life of the talkers.[12]Creative Commons License Chuck Coker via Compfight

The success of the Code Talkers lies not only in the complexity of the language and its mastery, but also the way it was used. If someone were to know Navajo, which was highly unlikely but even if, all they would be able to translate would be a few unrelated phrases, nouns and verbs. Considering the materials to develop the code were locked in a safe every night and were not permitted out of the room, it had to be memorized. There would seemingly be no military application when the phrases were translated. Each word and its corresponding military phrase within the code system was memorized by the unit. Even though the original developers of the code were proud to use their language, the prewar relationship between the Navajos and the United States government had not been forgotten. When originally given the task of writing the code some of the developers felt that it was ironic given that the government had beaten and punished them so harshly in boarding school for speaking Navajo were now asking them to develop a code using it.[13]

The return of military personnel after the war ended brought a massive wave that echoed on the Reservation and off of it. The returning soldiers and marines brought new desires for modern education and the economic advancements that comes with it. Among the desire for education the formation of interest groups came too. The National Congress of American Indians was founded in 1944. The National Congress of American Indians is the largest and oldest interest group in the United States. This interest group originally focused on protecting the sovereignty of each nation and was founded in response to the boarding school and the forced assimilation within the United States prior to World War II. The NCAI promotes the rights and aims to ensure the equal representation and cooperation of Native Americans within the United States. Another interest group is the Native American Rights Fund or NARF was founded in 1970. The NARF is the largest and oldest nonprofit law firm that focuses on defending the rights of tribes, organizations and individuals. These institutions are symbols of the pride for Native Americans to govern their sovereign nations while also be recognized for their contributions and their significance to American politics. Being Native American does not take away from or override their rights as Americans or their right to view themselves as American. After World War II Navajos viewed themselves not only as Navajo, but also American.


[1] Lorraine Turner Ruffing. 1976. “Navajo Economic Development Subject to Cultural Constraints.” Economic Development & Cultural Change 24 (3): 611.

[2] David E. Wilkins, The Navajo Political Experience, (Lanham: Rowman & Little, 2013) 192

[3] David E. Wilkins, The Navajo Political Experience, 192

[4] Parman, Donald Lee. “Navajo New Deal Becomes War Casualty.” In The Navajos and the New Deal, 280-290. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1976.


[5]  Noah Jed Riseman, “Regardless of History:Re-assessing the Navajo Code talkers of World War II”, (Australasian Journal of American Studies) 55

[6] Noah Riseman, Regardless of history, 52

[7] Ruth M. Underhill, The Navajos, (Norman: The University of Oklahoma, 1956) 241-250

[8] Ruth M. Underhill, The Navajos, 242

[9] Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon, 52

[10] Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon, 105

[11] Sally, McClain, Navajo Weapon, 95

[12] Sally, McCain, Navajo Weapon, 96-97

[13] Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon, 51



 Primary Documents about Navajo Recruitment!

Original Navajo Code Talkers Interviews

CIA History of Code Talkers 

Navajo Teens for Music

List of Navajo Code Words 

Navajo Times Newspaper

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