Originally Published: April 19, 2018 6:05 a.m.
With news published in The Daily Courier this week about one of the 11 remaining Navajo Code Talkers, Peter MacDonald — getting fitted for a hearing aid, with the assistance of a local business — it seems like a good time to consider, again, even though we are somewhat south of the Navajo Nation, its remarkable language.
The Code Talkers were an elite group of U.S. Marines who eventually included about 400 native speakers. They were recruited because of their fluency in their ancient language although many had been forbidden, during their formative years in schools operated by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, from speaking Navajo.
The New York Times, in its 2014 obituary of one of the Code Talkers, Chester Nez — who in 1942 had helped develop the code that proved critical in the United States’ victory in the Pacific in WWII — described the first message he sent over the radio, while serving at Guadalcanal (the English interpretation is included parenthetically):
“Anaai (Enemy) naatsosi (Japanese) beeldooh alhaa dildoni (machine gun) nishnaajigo nahdikadgo (on your right flank). Diiltaah (destroy).”
Nez and the others who developed the code, based on the Navajo language, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001 although some of them had already passed on by then.
Other Native Americans serving in U.S. forces in Europe and North Africa during WWII also successfully used codes based on their native languages.
Code Talkers sent and received encrypted, tactical messages. Some of them were killed in combat. Many who survived suffered from PTSD, and some who returned home from the war that they had helped the Allied forces to win were not legally allowed to vote in the United States.
The idea of using a military code based on Native American languages had initially been proposed by a WWI veteran, Philip Johnston. He was fluent in Navajo because his missionary parents reared him among the Navajo. It was the vast difference between the English and Navajo languages that convinced Johnston of the value of a code based on the Navajo language.
More recently, the unique nature of Native American languages has helped linguists — working in collaboration with geneticists and archaeologists — to identify a long-lost land mass in the Bering Strait, a broad plain previously unknown, but now referred to as Beringia, where, these scholars say, those who eventually migrated to North America had lived together, but otherwise isolated, for many thousands of years.
Over the past decade, linguists have linked the languages spoken by Navajo, Apache and other native tribes of North America to the tribal languages of Siberia. Some of the tribal languages of Siberia are spoken today only by a couple hundred people, and other of the tribal languages of Siberia have not been spoken in hundreds of years and are known of only because of fur-trading records from Russia’s czarist past.
The similarities between the tribal languages of Siberia and North America suggest to scholars that among those who had lived on Beringia, some migrated to the North American continent while others migrated back to Siberia, from whence they are believed to have come to Beringia.
Meanwhile, in the 20th century, with the fate of the world at stake in the outcome of WWII, Shakespeare’s observation — “What’s past is prologue” — from his play “The Tempest” seems to have been never more apt, considering how those who first came to this continent thousands of years before made all the difference for our shared future.