By Elizabeth Kearns, SRF-JRMC Corporate Communications
YOKOSUKA, Japan (Nov. 22, 2017) – U.S. Navy, U.S. civilian and Japanese personnel from Ship Repair Facility and Japan Regional Maintenance Center (SRF-JRMC) gathered on the quarterdeck to observe National Native American Heritage Month.
The annual celebration of Native American culture and history was first designated by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, although various state-wide and national days of observance date back to 1915.
“Honoring our Native Americans is important because it gives us a chance to reflect on how much respect they had for the earth and the contributions they made to our Military by serving with valor during times of conflict,” said Electronics Technician 1st Class Nolan Mason, the command’s cultural event coordinator. “It also gives us a chance to reflect on their warrior tradition, which is best exemplified by the following qualities said to be inherent to most, if not all American Indian societies: strength, honor, pride, devotion and wisdom.”
The relationship of Native American tribes to the U.S. government and its military has fluctuated throughout the nation’s history. Tribes have at times fought alongside or against the U.S. military, depending on the nature of the conflict, power dynamics and each group’s interests at the time.
Perhaps the most famous contribution of Native Americans to the U.S. armed forces is the code talker program from World War II. Code talkers came from several tribes, including Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche and Seminole. The largest and most well-known program involved the Navajo tribe.
The first class of 29 Navajo recruits arrived to Camp Pendleton, Calif., in 1942. There, they trained to become Marines while also memorizing a dictionary of 411 coded military terms and practicing an alphabet-based code, in which up to three Navajo words could stand for one English letter. The Navajo words were then strung together in order to spell out an encrypted English word (as in the title of this article).
Because Navajo and other Native American languages were mostly unwritten, and virtually no one outside the tribes could understand the complex tones, words and syntax, the code talkers became a vital part of U.S. military strategy. They served in all branches of the armed forces, with the highest concentration in the Army and Marines.
The program was not without controversy. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the U.S. government established boarding schools for the purpose of assimilating members of Native American tribes into the then-standard European-American culture.
Children were often forcibly removed from their families, stripped of their identities, and punished for speaking their native languages. Because of this, many people were troubled by the U.S. military capitalizing on the language skills of the same and subsequent generation during the war.
However, the impact of the program was profound. Code talkers were renowned for their speed and accuracy in transmitting messages. The men could encode, relay and translate a three-line message in 20 seconds, whereas previously-used codes required 30 minutes to accomplish the same task.
Because the communications work was critical to strategic operations, code talkers often served on the front lines of battle. They moved quickly, simultaneously relaying intelligence messages, handling communications equipment, and evading capture. Communications specialists were often targeted for capture because of the intelligence they could potentially provide to their adversaries.
For many decades after the conclusion of World War II, the contributions of Navajo code talkers and other Native American language speakers were largely unrecognized because their work had to remain a secret. The codes they developed remained unbroken, and the program was not declassified until 1968.
In 2001, President George W. Bush presented four surviving Navajo code talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal, in honor of their service to the U.S. military. The other original members were awarded the medal posthumously.
“It is recognized that, historically, Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups,” Mason said. “As the first people to live on the land we all cherish, Native Americans and Alaska Natives have profoundly shaped our country’s character and our cultural heritage.”