Intro Native Languages Boarding Schools Code Talking Coming Home Survival Recognition

Recognition | MEDALS AND PRAISE

Navajo Code Talkers at a 1979 parade
Navajo Code Talkers at a 1979 parade in Window Rock, Arizona, the capitol of the Navajo Nation. 1

In the military and non-Indian world, recognition for the Code Talkers was slow to develop. They were not acknowledged for many years despite their sacrifices and important roles in winning the war.

Early Recognition

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. Special recognition for Code Talking would not come for more than 40 years.

A Secret Program

One reason that Code Talkers were not recognized until much later is because the program was secret and classified by the military. The Navajos were ordered to keep their wartime jobs secret. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Navajo Code Talkers program was declassified by the military. The military did not order the Comanche Code Talkers to keep silent about their jobs in the war. However, mostly due to security concerns, the program was not discussed outside the Comanche community.

When we got out, discharged, they told us this thing you that you guys did is going to be a secret. When you get home you don’t talk about what you did; don’t tell your people, your parents, family, don’t tell them what your job was. This is going to be a secret; don’t talk about it. Just tell them you were in the service, defend your country and stuff like that. But, the code, never, never, don’t mention; don’t talk about it. Don’t let people ask you, try to get that out of you what you guys did. And that was our secret for about 25, 26 years. Until August 16th, 1968. That’s when it was declassified; then it was open. I told my sister, my aunt, all my families what I really did. —Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

Overdue Recognition

After the programs were declassified, people started to realize the importance of the Code Talkers’ achievements, and recognition finally began to arrive.

In 1989, the French government awarded the Comanche Code Talkers the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit, a very high honor. Finally, in 2000, the United States Congress passed legislation to honor the Navajo Code Talkers and provided them with special gold and silver Congressional Medals. The gold medals were for the original 29 Navajos that developed the code, and the silver medals for those that served later in the program. A statement in the Navajo language on the back of the medals translates to: “With the Navajo language they defeated the enemy.”

Congressional Gold and Silver Medals
Congressional Gold and Silver Medals awarded to the Navajo Code Talkers in 2001. 2
Gentlemen, your service inspires the respect and admiration of all Americans, and our gratitude is expressed for all time, in the medals it is now my honor to present. —President George W. Bush (The White House, Washington, D.C., 2001)

In 2007, a Congressional bill is pending that will officially recognize all American Indians who served as Code Talkers during the twentieth century.

Beyond Washington, D.C., tribal governments, some state and local governments, and a variety of organizations have acknowledged the importance of the Code Talkers.

Like all veterans, Code Talkers receive certain benefits for their service. For example, if a wound has physically disabled them, they are eligible for financial assistance from the government. Sometimes, this kind of help is more important to veterans than medals and other kinds of recognition.

Oh, yes, I’m proud of it, particularly when I shook hands with President Bush in Washington three years ago. He gave me the gold medal. He shook hands with me and then afterwards I spoke. So I spoke in English and then when I got through with my speech I spoke in Navajo, it amounted to about 3 minutes. I said, “You Navajo people that are now on the reservation between the four sacred mountains, I want the people should thank you for using our sacred language. This language was given to us by the Holy People, I don’t know how many thousand years ago,” I said. “We use it for they, to help win for the United States.”—John Brown, Jr., Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
What I want to do is thank the whole people of America, the citizens. I learned that they are my people, too. For those that give us recognition through my travel, most of the Anglo people really show appreciation that how we contribute to the Second World War and I really deeply thank them for their recognition.—Sam Tso, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

Carl Gorman Recognized

Carl Gorman receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters
Carl Gorman receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, May 12, 1990. 3

Carl Gorman received much recognition during his life—for his service as a Code Talker and for his work as a painter, teacher, and someone who strived for many years to preserve the traditional Navajo culture and history. After having fought in a war, he worked hard to build understanding between different peoples. Many people respected him for this quality. For all of his accomplishments, Carl was honored many times with speeches, awards, plaques, and letters of recognition. In 1990, he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of New Mexico for his “commitment to his people and his contributions to the culture of the Southwest.” Carl passed away in 1998, before the Navajos were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, but his wife, Mary, and other family members accepted the award on his behalf in 2001.

Charles Chibitty Recognized

Comanche Code Talker Charles Chibitty
Comanche Code Talker Charles Chibitty attending the dedication of the Comanche Nation Memorial to the Comanche Code Talkers in Lawton, Oklahoma. 4
Volunteers like Mr. Chibitty were key to the U.S. and allied forces' success from Normandy to Berlin —Arthur L. Money, Assistant Secretary of Defense (The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, 1999)

Eventually, Charles Chibitty and the other Comanche Code Talkers were recognized around the world for their contributions. Charles was honored at the Pentagon on three occasions. He was awarded special recognition from the Secretary of Defense and the Governor of Oklahoma. He received the Knowlton Award, a special honor from the Military Intelligence Association. He was invited to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in a ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. He was invited to speak at countless gatherings from small community centers to large national events. When he spoke, he always mentioned his fellow Comanche Code Talkers. He wished that they had received the same awards and recognition that he did, but by the time the recognition for Comanche Code Talkers began, many of them had already passed away. Charles was the last surviving Comanche code talker at the time of his death in 2005. Geoffrey Wright wrote this about him: “Charlie’s life has no foreshadowing or ending. As long as wind blows, his life and legacy will continue to twist and turn along courses only wild horses know.” (“YL-37 Flies Again: Charles Joyce Chibitty,” in YL-37 Group Foundation Inc., 2005)

[Charles sings] That’s the Comanche “Code Talker Song.” And then when we was all living when they sang it, we would always get together and dance and boy, they all come out. Now, I’m the only one living.—Charles Chibitty, Comanche Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

Lasting Legacy

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC
East façade and wetlands area of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. 5

The Code Talkers’ achievements are many. They overcame the difficulties imposed on Native peoples. They served their families, their communities, and their country by helping to win the two major wars of the twentieth century. They demonstrated the importance of their tribal languages to the world and helped preserve them for the future. They met the challenges of life and achieved many things after their military service. They are respected and admired by younger generations of American Indian people. For all of these accomplishments, the National Museum of the American Indian thanks and honors the Code Talkers, Native Warriors of the twentieth century.

The Code Talkers are credited with saving countless American and allied lives.—Arthur L. Money, Assistant Secretary of Defense (The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, 1999)
In short, Navajos make good Marines, and I should be very proud to command a unit composed entirely of these people.—Letter from G.R. Lockard, of Camp Goettge Signal Company to General Alexander A. Vandegrift, United States Marine Corps. (Navajo Weapon by Sally McClain, 1981)
When you’re 18 you want to go and do something exciting, this is what I wanted. That’s what I got, I’m happy. Came out of the war unscratched, lucky, to be home. That’s all what’s about you know... life’s something that you have to make and enjoy. That’s what’s for me.—Chester Nez, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
I found out I was fighting for all the Indian people. All the people in the United States, all that we had, as we call the United States. I found out this is what we were fighting for. From whoever try to take over us.—Sam Tso, Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
What we did, we save lives, using the Native American language.—Charles Chibitty, Comanche Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004
I like to think about among Indian Native people, that I defended their religion, their belief, their land, their stories and all that.—John Brown, Jr., Navajo Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004

Reflection and Discussion Questions

Workbook: Words on Recognition and Heroism

Review the text about the Code Talkers’ recognition in this section. How was it delayed and what kinds of recognition did they eventually receive? Read again the Code Talkers’ quotations about recognition.

Write a newspaper article about Code Talkers

Navajo Code Talkers at the Shiprock Fair
Navajo Code Talkers at the Shiprock Fair on the Navajo reservation, Shiprock, New Mexico, October 7, 1989. 6
American Indian leaders and veterans' groups lead the Grand Entry at the National Powwow
American Indian leaders and veterans' groups lead the Grand Entry at the National Powwow in Washington, D.C., August 2005. 7
Navajo Code Talkers proudly marching in a parade
The Navajo Code Talkers proudly marching in a parade in Washington, D.C., July 1983. 8

In your workbook, write a newspaper article that recognizes the achievements and sacrifices of the American Indian Code Talkers. Use the images above to help think of descriptive words for your article. See if you can get your article published in your school or community newspaper on or around Veteran’s Day.

Interview a veteran

Now, do some research. Find out if any of your family members or neighbors have been in the military. If possible, interview a family or community member who has served in the past or is serving now.

Ask questions, such as:

  • Where were you stationed and what was your job?
  • Were you ever scared?
  • What makes a veteran a war hero?
  • Did you know anyone that you consider a hero?
  • Were you ever recognized as a hero? How were you honored?

And be sure to listen closely to their answers.

Be aware that some veterans do not like to talk about their military experiences. Be respectful. If they only want to tell you about some things, that’s okay. If they would rather not be interviewed, that’s all right, too. Find someone who is willing to talk to you.

In your workbook, write a brief story that recognizes the achievements and sacrifices of a veteran from your family or community. Use the quotations from your interviews. Use the definition of “hero” that the person you interviewed gave you.

Paste a photo of the veteran you interviewed in your workbook.

  1. Photograph by Kenji Kawano. Courtesy of Kenji Kawano.
  2. Photograph by Don Grieser. Courtesy of Don Grieser
  3. Courtesy of Carl Gorman Collection
  4. Photograph by Chester Cowen. Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society, Research Division, Cowen Collection 19687.IN.CO.28.6
  5. Photograph courtesy of Maxwell MacKenzie, copyright 2004
  6. Photograph by Kenji Kawano. Courtesy of Kenji Kawano
  7. National Museum of the American Indian, 081305RWPWNMAIb089
  8. Photograph by Kenji Kawano. Courtesy of Kenji Kawano