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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


Today all of us have an interest in communications security whether we want to or not, due to the fact that at the moment there are both governments and corporations striving to reduce the internet and anything else to do with networked computers into a morass of constant surveillance and propaganda. Civilian need for and use of codes is not new, in fact evidence for it can be found almost as far back as we care to look where many humans lived together for extended periods in one place. Still, it remains more commonly understood that codes and cyphers are a part of military operations, from long term spying to the short term actions involved in ambushes and battles. For the long term sort of work, the earliest approaches to hiding messages from prying eyes was codes applied by hand, then by machine like the infamous and overrated german enigma machines, and eventually by the computers many of us have on our desks or in our pockets. It is easy to forget, but the key question about codes is not whether they can broken, because the best default answer is always yes, but how long it may take to break it given particular resources. The code really only needs to be strong enough to keep its secret until the message is no longer useful. In world war ii the german military used enigma machines in the battlefield, which meant they had to bring the machines, power them, deal with the inevitable transcription errors induced by typing messages, and the need to frequently change the keys to their codes. On the allied side, american and canadian military leaders opted to try something they hoped would be faster, less prone to errors, needing few or no code changes, and hopefully impossible to break. They opted to use Indigenous language speakers.

This actually didn't start in world war ii. I stumbled over William C. Meadows' book on Comanche code talkers who served in world war ii, where he also documented that Choctaw volunteers served as code talkers in world war i. The Choctaw Nation website notes that nineteen of these men served in this capacity, serving in strategic and dangerous positions on the front lines. In effect, they became the solution to the poor signal security of the american military at that time. Their language is related to Mvskokee, and similar to many Indigenous languages on Turtle Island is verb-focussed rather than noun-focussed. It is also a language that uses tones to differentiate word meanings. So the untutored ear, and in a time when documentation of Choctaw by outsiders was minimal or not broadly available, a focussed, task-specific vocabulary spoken at speed between fluent speakers would effectively be unbreakable for at least the duration of battlefield use. Fifteen Comanche men also served as code talkers in world war i. Both Choctaws and Comanches served in france from roughly 1918 until the end of world war i. Since the british military did not take advantage of Indigenous language skills in world war i, the canadian military didn't either, since for that conflict the it was still subsumed under the british command. The story was quite different in world war ii, and the number of Indigenous languages used and Indigenous men involved expanded significantly.

Photograph of Comanche code talkers who served in world war ii, courtesy of the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Centre. Photograph of Comanche code talkers who served in world war ii, courtesy of the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Centre.
Photograph of Comanche code talkers who served in world war ii, courtesy of the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Centre, where they also provide links to the documentary, Comanche Code of Honor.

Today the most famous Indigenous code talkers who served in world war ii are from the Navajo Nation and served mainly in the pacific theatre. A feature film released in 2002 that used them as the pretext for a white man's redemption arc flopped mightily, but probably did raise awareness about the original 29 Navajo men who created the code used by their comrades in world war ii. Navajo is categorized by outsider anthropologists as an "athapascan" language, which is interesting here mainly because it reminds us that the Navajos in southern Turtle Island are cousins of the many Dene Nations far to the north in what is currently labelled canada. Like their cousins' languages, Navajo is not only verb-centred and uses tones to differentiate words, it also has a system for marking nouns according to their shape, position, and how they reflect light, among other features. Their language had gathered little interest even from german anthropologists, who between the wars had spent time trying to learn more Indigenous languages. This had less to do with military applications than the german and partly eastern european "hobby indian" movement. Unlike the languages spoken in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy or in the fur trade system, Navajo was sparsely documented, still not written by Navajos themselves as far as outsiders knew, and not amenable to such codebreaking techniques as cribbing and letter frequency analysis. Nevertheless, this didn't prevent Choctaws and Comanches taking part as code talkers again, and in fact, it didn't prevent Indigenous men serving in the canadian army from using their languages either, even if they were Haudenosaunee or from a nation at that time still active in the fur trade.

During world war ii, according to Jessica Deer writing on cbc.ca, 33 Indigenous languages were applied to battlefield communications, including Kanien'kéha (Mohawk) and Cree. Louis Levi Oakes, the last surviving Kanien'kéha code talker whose picture is shown at right, was one of many men from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who enlisted in the american armed forces to serve in word war ii. Kanien'kéha code talkers were called upon specifically in europe due to at least one german officer who was suspected of knowing Navajo. This reveals an important weak point in the system, in that if anyone could recognize the code talkers' language, they would have a dangerous start on trying to tease apart their code. Yet since the code talkers developed their codes on a language by language basis, there would still have been an important delay between someone potentially recognizing and translating the words and then putting what they knew to use. Often the Indigenous officers who worked on these codes applied metaphors based in their own cultural frameworks, so that in itself would probably have caused important headaches.

Photograph of Louis Levi Oakes, Kanienkehaka Elder and veteran code talker who served in world war ii, courtesy of cbc.ca. Photograph of Louis Levi Oakes, Kanienkehaka Elder and veteran code talker who served in world war ii, courtesy of cbc.ca.
Photograph of Louis Levi Oakes, Kanienkehaka Elder and veteran code talker who served in world war ii, courtesy of cbc.ca, original article title "Last WWII Mohawk Code Talker Honoured by Assembly of First Nations, House of Commons," dated 4 december 2018.

By all accounts Indigenous code talking was a primarily american pursuit, but there is at least one set of canadian examples, the seven Cree-speaking men who served in the canadian forces, posted to england and service with the allied air forces. In 2016, filmmakers Cowboy Smithx and Alexandra Lazarowich released their documentary on Charles Tomkins, a Cree-speaking Métis from alberta whose role in the war finally came to light when the smithsonian interviewed him as part of its own project to document Indigenous code talkers. Their documentary shows that the americans asked for men who "spoke indian languages." Neither the british nor canadian military command pursued this on their own. All the Indigenous men involved in this work were sworn to secrecy, and most documents pertaining to it were not declassified until the early 2000s. The release of those files has also highlight the unjust treatment these men received on returning home from serving overseas, since in both canada and the united states Indigenous veterans were regularly prevented from taking advantage of legislated programs officially intended to honour and repay military service with education, medical care, and help purchasing or building homes for their families.

There is a bitter irony in the recent efflorescence of interest in the code talkers, or rather, another one besides the fact that they had to deal with considerable injustice when they got home for which most have never received any redress. That colonizer states have spent endless effort on destroying the very Indigenous languages that they suddenly wanted so urgently to exploit for military purposes in both world wars, and probably other conflicts besides. These are the same states that funded the vicious system of residential schools in both canada and the united states, filled primarily by kidnapping Indigenous children from their families specifically to prevent them from maintaining knowledge of their cultures and languages. Based on the information I have found so far, practically all of the code talkers who served in the world wars would have been residential school survivors. In order to keep and speak their own languages at all, they had already had to fight battles against an entire system of punishment as well as systematic efforts to block Indigenous communities from developing or continuing to use ways of transcribing their languages so that they could produce documents recognizable as such to non-Indigenous people. This was done not only to interfere with transmission of Indigenous languages between generations, but for fear that non-Indigenous authorities would not be able to read their texts and therefore control the Indigenous peoples doing the writing. In other words, they feared that when written in an Indigenous selected and developed orthography, the result would be a code that colonial authorities could not break.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:09