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Arizona State’s Laura Tohe delighted to see the Code Talkers finally getting national recognition

Historians in the News
tags: code talkers, Laura Tohe



Once sworn to secrecy about their cryptic contributions to U.S. military battle, some former hidden heroes are now decoding the details of their efforts for historical posterity.

The last living members of the World War II Navajo Code Talkers are calling for the creation of a national museum to honor the memory of their elite band of brothers. It’s a recognition many, including Arizona State University Professor Laura Tohe.  Tohe is a professor in ASU's Department of English and the author of several books, songs and plays. In 2015, she was honored as the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate in celebration of her work as a poet and writer. , say is long overdue.

“Outside of the tribal community, Navajo Code Talkers are deeply admired,” said Tohe, whose father was himself a Code Talker. “People are curious about their contributions and how they used the Navajo language to save many lives.”

Under special classification by the military, Code Talkers were forbidden to talk about their covert service in the first and second world wars until the program was declassified in 1968. However, even after declassification, it still took years before the Code Talkers began to find their place among retold stories of American patriotism.

Tohe shed some light on that history in her 2012 book “Code Talker Stories,” which details the war experiences of these soldiers. And, with the recent honoring of a group of Code Talkers at a White House ceremony where the petition was made for a new museum, Tohe shared more background with ASU Now on the history that has elevated recognition for Code Talkers in recent years. 

Question: Who are the Code Talkers?

Answer:The Code Talkers were Marines from several tribal nations who used their native languages to devise a military code during WWI and II. Among them are the Hopi, Comanche, Choctaw, Creek, Chippewa, Meskwaki and Lakota Code Talkers. The Navajo Code Talkers are the most well-known. They used the Navajo language to devise a secret code during WWII to send sensitive messages over the radio waves that was never deciphered by the Japanese. It was quick, accurate and saved many lives in the South Pacific where they fought in many battles.   

Q: Describe the life of a Native American man during WWI and WWII. What would be the incentive or motivation to serve in those wars when they were not considered citizens of the United States during those years?

A:Life on the indigenous homelands were difficult. Based on my grandmother’s stories, disease was rampant in the schools on the Navajo reservation during part of WWI. She saw many of her classmates succumb to the disease in school. During this time, Native peoples still spoke their native languages and may have learned English in school, if they attended. Because of poverty, lack of economic sustainability on the homelands, continuance of warrior traditions, patriotism and an enduring belief in protecting America, indigenous men enlisted or were drafted. 

I was surprised to find in my research for my oral history book that admiration for the military uniform also led some to enlist when the recruiters came to their schools. While indigenous peoples enlisted in the military in great numbers, and still do, they were not given citizenship until after they returned from military service. The Navajo Code Talkers did not have voting rights in Arizona until 1948, after WWII ended. ...

Read entire article at ASU


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