Navajo Code Talkers

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924: Forging a Connection to the Enlistment of the Navajo Code Talkers

Alexandria Moriarty, December 2014

Chief Joseph, of the Nez Perce said, “The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.” [1] Although the Native Americans were the first group of people to occupy and respect the land we now call America, they were forced out of their settled lands and onto governmentally organized reservations, which is the system in place today. Following much history after the initial encounters with new settlers, the Native Americans were eventually granted citizenship through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which was cause for controversy among the tribes. Many Native Americans took important roles in the history of the United States before and after this legislation. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, however, influenced many to enlist in the armed forces, although there was much disagreement upon the legislation. The Navajo were influenced by the Indian Citizenship Act as much as other Native American tribes; however, the enlistment of the twenty nine Navajo men who created the Navajo Code made a tremendous impact upon the outcome of the war through the creation of the Code and the remarkable bravery the Navajo Code Talkers exhibited. Through their citizenship, the Navajo Code Talkers made a change that impacted the world.

A notable aspect of the Navajo tribe is their incredibly complex language, which fewer than thirty non-Navajo people knew at the time of World War II. [2] The Navajo language, along with the Navajo stories of creation, belief system, and culture, is very complex and radically different than other languages. The language itself has no written form, which was a key component in the United States Marine Corps’ decision to use the language for code in World War II. Because of its complexity, the language became tremendous in the outcome of the war.

The Navajo people, along with all of the Native Americans of the United States and other areas of North America, have struggled to maintain their culture, their traditions, and their way of life as the Europeans and other peoples forcibly removed them from their lands. These removals and relocations were part of a movement for the Native Americans to be sectioned into a remote area of the United States where their land was private and separate from the United States government. In a few key instances, such as the acquisition of Mexico, the Navajo in particular were seen as a threat to the outcome of the war. Six thousand Navajo people were relocated, but in later years, were brought back to their reservation lands. The Navajo are described as resilient, due to their strength and determination for peace throughout the history of their tribe. [3] The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 also brought about concern with how to go about the exploration and declaration of westward expansion with Native Americans living on these lands. This act encouraged Native Americans to accept allotted pieces of land from the United States government in return for citizenship. The act emboldened the Native Americans to buy a house of their own, to send their children to American schools, and to work in the American workforce. The legislation was specifically created to enforce the assimilation of Native Americans into the mainstream American society. United States government officials, as well as citizens, saw the Native Americans as deprived, in that they weren’t entitled to individual ownership through their sovereignty. Eastern scholars and humanitarians thought that communal ownership was, “depriving Indian societies of the self interest that was the root of individual advancement.” [4] It was believed that the Indians had no interest in the matters of individual ownership because they were not allowed to be. Scholars were also equating hunting with barbarism, and agriculture with civilization, [5] leaving the Native Americans at what was seen as a disadvantaged and savage lifestyle. Although there was disagreement among Eastern people, the Native Americans lived their lives that way because of their basis in beliefs. The Native Americans truly believed that earth was the mother to all people, and life should revolve around tending to the earth, respecting the land, and living off of what came from the land. However, these scholars, in addition to the government of the United States, sought to encourage the Native Americans to give up their nomadic lifestyles and wandering patterns, and to move to agricultural societies. [6] The history behind the development of assimilation techniques in the United States was beginning during this time period, where more and more new groups of people from all around the world were moving across the borders.

Due to the overwhelming numbers of immigrants crossing the borders, the United States experienced an enormous change in culture and identity throughout the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. There were many attempts to refuse the different people that were becoming part of the bulk of people of the United States. In addition to many other pieces of legislation, the Native American population, now living in reservations set aside by the government, was granted United States citizenship. There were no requirements, no limitations, and every single Native American living in the United States fell under the act’s statements.

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 states:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that all non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided that the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property. (Approved June 2, 1924) [7]

This act caused much controversy among the Native American population, specifically because it was said to be unilateral by the government, without the approval of the tribes. [8] This legislation was a breach of the agreement of sovereignty between the tribes and the government. Clinton Rickard, a Tuscarora Chief, said, “This was a violation of our sovereignty. Our citizenship was in our own nations…We wished to remain treaty Indians and reserve our ancient rights. There was no great rush among my people to go out and vote in the white man’s elections.” [9] There were some Native Americans who were not involved in the process of citizenship for all, and there were some who were. Many felt that it was a violation in an agreement made years before, when they were being mistreated by relocation. This legislation caused controversy among the Native American people of the United States. Why should they be forced into citizenship when they were content with their own private affairs as a sovereign nation?

Interestingly enough, less than twenty years later, when World War II began, many Native Americans enlisted in the United States armed forces. An unappreciated aspect of the Indian Citizenship Act was the enlistment of the Navajo men who would create a code that was used to communicate to troops during the most vital time of World War II, undeterred by the Japanese breaking other forms of communications used. Through research, I will show how the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 led to this important turn in history that ultimately led to the victory of the war. Previously, during World War I, there had been Native American men enlisting, “despite tensions between the American government and Indian nations.” [10] This pattern followed in the Second World War, with five hundred forty Navajo serving in the Marine Corps, and an estimated three hundred seventy five to four hundred twenty Navajo serving on a special force, called the Navajo Code Talkers. During World War II, when the Japanese were breaking every code that was being used to communicate to troops, a non- Navajo man, raised on a Navajo reservation, suggested to his superiors that they attempt to use the Navajo language as a code that the Japanese wouldn’t be able to decode. Originally, twenty-nine Navajo men created the code for the Marine Corps. Their presence in the Marines was not understood by all of their comrades, and the original creators of the code faced some challenges in socializing with other Marines. Chester Nez, the last of the original twenty-nine creators of the code, was interviewed recently and spoke about facing resistance from fellow Marines who did not understand who they were and what they were doing, as they were “forbidden from telling anyone about it- not fellow Marines, not families- until work was declassified in 1968. [11] The importance of this Code was not well understood around twenty-five years after it had been used. Its impact was tremendous, and unappreciated until the declassification. The Navajo language was ultimately looked to because, “its syntax and tonal qualities were almost impossible for a non-Navajo to learn.” [12] Because of this, it was a flexible language in terms of combinations of words. Another benefit to using the Navajo language was that there was no written form, which added to the obscurity and allowed a sort of safeguard for communication. The language itself was the foundation of the code, using two hundred eleven key words and military terms, consisted of Navajo words replaced with the first letter of the English word’s equivalent. [13] When there wasn’t a Navajo word for the military term they wanted to use, the Code Talkers invented new terms to represent the English word, such as “besh-lo”, meaning iron fish, to represent a submarine. [14] Ironically, the very thing that assimilation tried to extinguish is what may have led to the victory of a world war for the United States. It is astounding that so many attempts at trying to change people from different cultures ends up greatly impacting the outcome of the war. The Navajo Code Talkers used their language, their system of beliefs as the basis, and transformed the communication used during the Second World War, even following a long history of the United States government trying to assimilate them into mainstream society. Without the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, the history and present of the United States could be drastically different.

Although there have been many disputes and tragedies related to the history of the Native Americans, the Navajo Code Talkers and their work in World War II is a true victory, for without them, the outcome could have been much different. Along with all of its repercussions and opposition, the Indian Citizenship Act forged a connection between the sovereign nations of the Native Americans and the United States government and affairs, which eventually led to the enlistment of these remarkable Navajo who may have changed the world using their native language and culture, which was the very thing that was at risk of extinction throughout time.

Notes

[1] Nerburn, Kent, The Wisdom of the Native Americans MJF Books, 1999.

[2] Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth, “Windtalkers,” Enclycopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Vol. 3. Detriot: Gale, 2004. U.S. History In Context,

[3] Hagan, William, “United States Indian Policy, 1860-present”. In The New Enclycopedia of the American West. Yale University Press, 1998.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] General Records of the U.S. Government; Record Group 11; “Indian Citizenship Act,” National Archives, June 2, 1924.

[8] Martin, Walter E Jr, Sullivan, Patricia, “American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924,” Civil Rights In the United States. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. U.S. History in Context. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

[9] Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth, “Windtalkers,” Enclycopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Vol. 3. Detriot:
Gale, 2004. U.S. History In Context,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stapleton, AnneClaire, Carter, Chelsea J, “Chester Nez, last of original code talkers of World War II, dies,” CNN, June 4, 2014.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth, “Windtalkers,” Enclycopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Vol. 3. Detriot: Gale, 2004. U.S. History In Context,

[14] Ibid.

Further Reading

Native Americans and the U.S. Military. Information on Native American Participation in the US Military History

Calloway, Colin G., First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008).

Worcester State University Fall 2020