Navajo code talker history resonates with 7th grade students

Jonathon Prather instructs his 7th grade World Studies class.

Starting in March and going into April, Jonathon Prather’s 7th grade World Studies class is studying World War II and the Holocaust. Part of that unit is dedicated to the Navajo code talkers.

Prather’s World Studies class – an honors class – has 17 students, 12 of whom are Navajo. “Discussing the part about the Navajo code talkers and the important role they played in the war fills them with a great amount of pride,” said Prather. 

Because of the crucial role they played in America’s victory against Japan, code talkers are one of the most highly respected and revered segments of the Navajo population. 

For Prather’s students, it’s a tangible piece of history. Nearly all his Navajo students have relatives or other ties to code talkers. It presents a golden opportunity for Prather to connect with his students, and he goes above and beyond to make the unit stand out.

As part of the unit, Prather has his students create their own code. During the exercise, the students write a sentence of their choosing, then transpose it into Navajo code. They then swap their code with another student, and the students translate the code back into English.

During the six weeks Prather teaches the unit about WWII and the Holocaust, he covers the walls of his classroom with posters, newspaper clippings, advertisements and other memorabilia from the World War II era. 

The code talkers were part of the United States Marine Corps fighting in the Pacific Theater. 

The code used by the code talkers allowed the Marines to coordinate large-scale operations, such as the attack on Iwo Jima. The majority of the code talker communications traveled over radio frequencies across broad swathes of the Pacific and its islands, areas that were occupied by enemy forces who could easily listen in on the radio conversations.

“America needed to come up with an unbreakable code,” Prather told his class.

Part of what made the code unbreakable is that the code talkers spoke the code using Navajo, a language that very few non-Navajos could speak fluently.

Prather explained to his class that the idea to form the code talkers came from a similar successful operation in World War I that utilized a code based on the Choctaw and Cherokee languages.

Following World War I, Germany and Japan sent students to study Native American languages. Because of this, many members of the U.S. military were uneasy about continuing to use code talkers again in World War II.

It was a civilian named Philip Johnstone who convinced the U.S. military to try Navajo-language speakers as code talkers. Johnstone, a white man, grew up on the Navajo Reservation as a child with his parents who were missionaries.

Even though German and Japanese students had studied many Native American languages, Johnstone was convinced that the Navajo Nation had been too remote and difficult to get to, and it was therefore very unlikely that any German or Japanese student had visited the nation.

Johnstone was even allowed to enlist in the Marines and take part in the code talker program.

One of the students in Prather’s class is Kaley Begay, a Dinè student from Page. For Begay, talking about the brave Navajo soldiers who played a very crucial role in America’s victory against Japan fills her with a great amount of pride. 

“Thinking about what they went through gives me a lot of strength,” she said.

“What they went through was great for all Native cultures, and that gives us all strength to be a better person and be more aware of our feelings. I think we should all look up to them. Not only did they fight through the war, they fought through racism while they were doing it. What they did was a very kind thing to do for this country. What they did, did a lot to shape how Navajos and all Native Americans were viewed by American society.”

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