I sat at my desk this morning trying to come up with a story idea for a Veteran's Day article. I had a couple of thoughts and found myself digging through the exhibition script for one of our most important history shows: Native Words, Native Warriors, about the remarkable story of Native American soldiers (from more than a dozen tribes) who used their own languages to thwart American enemies in World Wars I and II. The codetalkers' messages were absolutely indeciperable to the Germans and their allies.
The irony is that most of these Native warriors learned English in government-sponsored Indian schools, designed to rid them of the very languages that eventually saved so many American lives. According to Forrest Kassanavoid (Comanche), U.S. Army, "They didn’t let us speak Comanche then. We had to be very careful, almost went underground to speak . . . They’d take that soap and make you wash your mouth out and tell you not to do it anymore . . . "
Then came difficult times. When the military issued a call to arms for Native Americans, many were more than willing to fulfil what they considered their duty. "One of the commitments I made," says David E. Patterson (Navajo), U.S. Marine Corps, "was that I was willing to die for my country—the U.S., the Navajo Nation, and my family. My [Native] language was my weapon."
But how could Native languages provide words for the machinery of modern warfare? American Indians devised ways to cross the technological divide. The Navajo word "atsá," meaning eagle, became the code word for transport plane. The Hopi word "paaki," or houses on water, meant "ships." And, the Choctaw words "tuli tanampo chito shali," translated to big metal gun, was the secret phrase for "tank."
For a more in-depth look at the exhibition, lesson plans, and more, check out the companion website.