by Cynthia Tintorri
November 26, 2013
Diné College, of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and Northampton Community College have a shared history of several years, owing to the intercultural exchange program between students of the two schools. During their weeklong visit to NCC, 12 Diné students shared some of their own native Navajo history in a talk on November 26.
The students spoke about the Navajo Code Talkers , an elite corps of Marines who, during World War II, were recruited from the reservation to create a battlefield code from their language that would be indecipherable to the enemy. Several of the Diné students are the grandchildren of Code Talkers.
The students all introduced themselves in Navajo, naming, as is their culture's protocol, the clan affiliations of their mothers, fathers, and maternal and paternal grandfathers. Dr. Miranda Haskie, sociology professor at Diné and the group's chaperone, explained, "This introduction lets other Navajos understand how we might be related, and shows respect for our elders," which is a core value of the Navajo people.
Navajo culture, the speakers explained, is preserved through oral teachings. The fact that Navajo is not a written language made it invaluable for creating a military code during the war. The Code Talker recruits were trained as Marines at Camp Pendleton in California, and had to memorize over 600 words of the code -- the only unbroken code in military history.
The Diné students explained how the code worked: The first letter of a word in English would translate to the word for a noun with the same first letter in Navajo. For instance, the letter "a" would be translated as the Navajo word for ant, or apple, or axe. The result of spelling out a word in this code would make no sense, either to a non-Navajo speaker or a Navajo speaker who didn't understand the code. "Translating the word 'tarawa' would sound to a Navajo speaker like 'turkey, ant, rabbit, apple ...' They'd think you were reciting a recipe," laughed Diné student Tyson Benally.
Other military terms, rather than being spelled out in code, took on the Navajo name for a representative object. Thus, fighter plane translated into the Navajo word for hummingbird, submarine became "iron fish" and tank became turtle. The code could be rapidly transmitted and translated between the code talkers, and it was employed throughout the war to send messages across enemy lines about troop movements and special orders.
The Code Talker program was classified until 1968, and those in the program were told not to speak about it even to their families. The Native Americans who served were largely unrecognized until the Code Talker Recognition Act of 2008, which required the issuance of medals to "express the sense of the Congress that the service of Native American code talkers to the United States deserves immediate recognition for dedication and valor; and honoring Native American code talkers is long overdue."
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