At Thanksgiving, folks in the United States give thanks for all the things they treasure from food and family to freedom and football. The national holiday also commemorates a gathering between the Pilgrim Fathers who founded Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 and the local Native Americans who helped them survive their first hard winter.
U.S. Navy Photo
This photo from the Defense Dept. website seems pretty evocative of the season. It shows some of the surviving members of the Navajo Code Talkers taking part in a Veterans Day parade in New York City.
The Code Talkers were a special U.S. Marine Corps unit created to confound Japanese intelligence officers spying on U.S. radio transmissions in the Pacific theater during World War II. The Navajos, speaking in code, as well as in their native tongue to other Navajos on the radio gave the enemy eavesdroppers fits at Iwo Jima and Pacific War battles. In addition to speaking a non-written language that very few non-Navajos spoke, the code talkers also devised code words like “potato” for hand grenade and “tortoise” for tank.
The Navajos were not the only speakers of unusual languages pressed into service as wartime coded-message transmitters. Cherokee and Choctaw speakers were used on the Western Front in World War I. Comanche and Meswaki speakers were used in Europe and North Africa to confound the Germans. Oddly enough, Hitler knew of the Native American code talkers in the First World War and sent German anthropologists to study tribal languages before World War II. But the variety of languages and dialects overwhelmed them and they gave up the project.
During the war, the Navajos replaced a small contingent of troops who spoke Basque, the ancient language of northern Spain and southwest France. The Navajos became the most famous code talkers of World War II. A popular – although highly-fictionalized – 2002 movie was made about their exploits. There are also monuments to them in Arizona and Florida.
So the photo depicts another thing to be thankful for, Native Americans who, despite the injustices of the past, answered the call to help their country.
By the way, “Yah-ta-hey” is a traditional Navajo greeting among friends, like “Hi” or “Hello.”