Code Talkers: American Indian Heroes | Smithsonian Exhibit Opens at Grout Museum in Waterloo

Navaho code talkers.

From the Grout Museum in Waterloo: When the United States issued the call to arms in World Wars I and II, American Indians answered as warriors. Some men discovered that words—in their Native languages—would be their most valued weapons. These unsung American heroes share their stories of strength and courage in a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, opening at the Grout Museum of History and Science, 503 South St., Waterloo, IA, on July 21. This exhibit will remain on display through September 30, 2012.

“My language was my weapon.”
—David Patterson (Navajo), 4th Div., U.S. Marine Corps.

“Native Words, Native Warriors,” developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, tells the remarkable story of soldiers from more than a dozen tribes who used their native languages while in service in the U.S. military.

Eight Meskwaki Indians from Tama, Iowa, became code talkers with the U.S. Army’s 34th Infantry Division, February 21, 1941. Photo courtesy the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

The U.S. military first enlisted American Indians to relay messages in their native languages during World War I, even though the United States did not consider American Indians citizens until 1924. These encoded messages proved undecipherable by the enemy and helped the United States achieve victory.

The involvement of the code talkers expanded during World War II. Soldiers from the Comanche, Meskwaki, Sioux, Crow, Hopi, and Cree nations, among others, took part in the effort. The best known of these projects is the formerly classified Navajo Code Talker Program, established by the U.S. Marine Corps in September 1942. The encoded messages proved to be a fast, accurate and indecipherable-to-the-enemy alternative, which suited the demands of the battlefield better than the painfully slow military devices that had been standard.

Navajo code talkers, here honored at a large pow wow, are credited with saving many lives during World War II.

Twenty-three years after the end of World War II, the U.S. government declassified the Navajo and Comanche code talker programs and revealed America’s unsung heroes. In 1999 the U.S. Army presented the last surviving Comanche code talker with a the Knowlton award for outstanding intelligence work, and in 2001 President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to four of the five living veterans of the original 29 Navajo code talkers.

Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma pioneered code talking at the end of World War I.

Through oral histories taken from the veterans themselves, “Native Words” celebrates and honors this important but little-reported aspect of American history. In addition to 15 large-scale banners, the exhibition includes videos examining the development of the code, battlefield experiences, and the sharp turnaround many of them experienced as they transitioned from Indian boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their native language to using it as their call to duty for their country.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

This exhibit is included with regular museum admission: $10 for adults, $5 for veterans and children 4-13, Grout Museum District members and children 3 and under are free. For more information please visit or call 319-234-6357.