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Native Sun News: Remembering Native American Code Talkers

Filed Under: National
More on: languages, military, native sun news, veterans, wars

The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Senator John Thune (R-SD) honored WWII Veteran and code talker Clarence Wolf Guts. PHOTO BY/Karin Eagle

Remembering the Native American Code Talkers
By Karin Eagle
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY – Since the beginning it has been the role of Native men to protect their communities and lands. The term “Warrior” in its English translation, is often not enough to describe the sense of responsibility and duty that comes with the role.

For thousands of years, Native American men have protected their people and communities. Their traditional roles involved more than fighting enemies. They cared for people and helped in many ways, in any time of difficulty. They were expected to help their people survive, including laying down their own lives.

Per capita, more Native Americans have served in this Nation’s wars than any other ethnic group.

Most served out of a sense of patriotism. For some the military offered economic security and an opportunity for education, training, and world travel.

More than 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I — about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at that time. During World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 350,000, an estimated 44,000 Indian men and women served.

Some of the military personnel from different tribes, including the Cherokee, Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche, were called upon to serve as Code Talkers. The name Code Talker is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater. Code talking, however, was pioneered by Choctaw Indians serving in the U.S. Army during World War I.

There were approximately 400-500 Native Americans in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was the transmission of secret tactical messages. Some enlisted, others were drafted.

Many of the Code Talkers who served were under age and had to lie about their age to join, some at the age of only fifteen. The president-to-be of the Navajo Nation, Peter McDonald was only 16 when he enlisted. Ultimately, there were Code Talkers from at least 16 tribes who served in the army, the marines, and the navy.

Code talkers transmitted these messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formal or informally developed codes built upon their native languages. Their service improved communications in terms of speed of encryption at both ends in front line operations during World War II.

Originally, soldiers of Basque ancestry were used for code talking by the U.S. Marines during World War II in areas where other Basque speakers were not expected to be operating. These soldiers were of a people living in the Basque Country of France and Spain. Culturally one of the most distinct groups in Europe, the Basques were largely independent until the 19th century, and the language of the Basques has no known relation to any other language.

The Lakota tribes entered into the Code Talk program and used their native languages, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota as code during World War II. They became known as the Sioux Code Talkers.

Under some of the heaviest combat action, the Code Talkers worked around the clock to provide information which saved the lives of many Americans in the Pacific and Europe, such as the location of enemy troops and the number of enemy guns. The Sioux Code Talkers were so successful that military commanders credit the code with saving the lives of countless American soldiers and being instrumental to the success of the United States in many battles during World War II.

Many American Indian Code Talkers in World War II used their everyday tribal languages to convey messages. A message such as, “Send more ammunition to the front,” would just be translated into the Native language and sent over the radio. These became known as Type Two Codes.

However, the Navajo, Comanche, Hopi, and Meskwaki developed and used special codes based on their languages. These became known as Type One Codes.

To develop their Type One Code, the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers first came up with a Navajo word for each letter of the English alphabet. Since they had to memorize all the words, they used things that were familiar to them, such as kinds of animals.

Code Talkers were given the messages in English. Without writing them down, they translated and sent them to another Code Talker. After the message was transmitted and received, it was written down in English and entered into a message logbook.

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted full United States citizenship to all Native Americans. However, some states still refused to let American Indians vote. Not until 1948 in Arizona and New Mexico, and 1957 in Utah did all Native Americans gain the right to vote.

Many Code Talkers earned medals, such as Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, Good Conduct Medals, and Combat Infantry Badges, during and after the war. But this was recognition that many servicemen and women received, depending on where they were and what they did in the war. Because the role of the Code Talkers was a closely guarded military secret special recognition for Code Talking would not come for more than 40 years.

For decades, details of the code talkers program were classified. After the program was declassified, Congress passed laws formally recognizing their contributions. Navajo code talkers received medals in 2001.

It would be another seven years before Congress passed the "Code Talkers Recognition Act," authorizing medals for representatives of other tribes that served in World Wars I and II. By then, only two Lakota code talkers were still alive, including Charles White Pipe and Clarence Wolf Guts.

Eleven Lakota code talkers mentioned by name in the Congressional Record (2002 Code Talkers Recognition Act). As of June 2010, when Clarence Wolf Guts passed away, all are now deceased.

The names of the eleven identified Lakota Code Talkers are: Eddie Eagle Boy, Simon Broke Leg, Iver Crow Eagle, Sr., Edmund St. John, Walter C. John, John Bear King, Phillip "Stoney" LaBlanc, Baptiste Pumpkin Seed, Guy Rondell, Charles White Pipe, and Clarence Wolf Guts.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) remarked on the passing of Wolf Guts, "I am deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Clarence Wolf Guts. He and his fellow Code Talkers have had a lasting impact on the course of history and helped lead the Allies to success during World War II. He will be greatly missed, but his contributions to our state and nation will live on."

"Clarence Wolf Guts was an American hero; he was courageous and self-sacrificing,” expressed Sen. John Thune (R-SD) “I have a great deal of respect for Clarence and for the extraordinary contributions Mr. Wolf Guts made to our country. The efforts of the Lakota Code Talkers saved the lives of many soldiers, and for too long went unrecognized."

War was hard on the entire American economy. Food and gasoline were rationed and many basic items were in short supply. After the war, many returning veterans found it difficult to find jobs. Most Native American reservations and communities are located in rural areas where there are few jobs even during normal economic times.

Unemployment and poverty levels had long been high for Native communities, but it was even worse after the war. Life was very difficult for many World War II American Indian veterans.

Some of the returning Code Talkers stayed in their home communities and farmed, ranched, fished, and did whatever kinds of work they could find. Others had to move to larger urban areas where jobs were more plentiful. Many veterans took advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (better known as the G.I. Bill) to go to college or get vocational training.

The Code Talkers accomplished many things during their post-war lives. Some became leaders in their communities and participated in the tribal governments. They became educators, artists, and professionals in a variety of fields. Others were active in the cultural lives of their tribes. Some worked to help preserve their languages.

Beyond Washington, D.C., tribal governments, some state and local governments, and a variety of organizations have acknowledged the importance of the Code Talkers. In 1989, the French government awarded the Comanche Code Talkers the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit, one of France’s highest honors.

“The Code Talkers are credited with saving countless American and allied lives.”-Arthur L. Money, Assistant Secretary of Defense (The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, 1999)

For more information on the role that Native Code Talkers played in the United States military, visit the following websites:,

(Contact Karin Eagle at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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