Security Encyclopedia

Native American Code Talkers

The term Native American Code Talkers refers to the many people from indigenous communities within the US who worked with the US military to serve as ciphers.

Code talkers used their knowledge of their largely-unknown native languages as the foundation for encrypting verbal messages, strengthening encryption and making it agile on the battlefield. They used a simple substitution cipher to replace letters of the English alphabet with a native word to represent it, and they used simple translation from English to the native language and back. For the latter, descriptive words were substituted since no native terms applied. In World War II the word Britain became “between two waters”, fighter aircraft became “hummingbird”, and battleships were called “whales”.

An estimated 400-500 Native Americans worked with the United States Marine Corps encoding and decoding message as their primary responsibility. The dominant language for USMC code talkers during WWII was Navajo, whole personnel were deployed alongside convention communications personnel in the Pacific theatre. In WWII — across the Pacific, North African, and European theatres — the US Army also deployed Native American and in general other code talkers of lesser-known languages (e.g. Basques of San Francisco, CA, in the USMC) have answered the call to serve in this way. For their part, members of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes pioneered code talking during World War at or around the time of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Western Front, 1918.


“Native American Code Talkers were heroes who lent their talents toward the cause of US and world freedom by serving with the US military. They used lesser-known languages such as Navajo which baffled the enemies’ efforts to eavesdrop on frontline and other communications.”