|The Navajo Culture is Dying
Twenty-five years ago almost all Navajo youth could speak their tribal language. Today that number
has been reduced to a fortunate few. Although still the most widely spoken of all American Indian
languages in the U.S., within another generation the Navajo language could be on the verge of extinction without some type of intervention. And if the Navajo language dies, there will be little, if any, hope for
the survival of our other indigenous languages.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, 29 young men stepped warily off of a Marine Corps bus and
reported for training at Camp Pendleton, California. Even a casual observer would have noticed something
unique about those 29 young men, for all of them were Navajo Indians who had been recruited for a special
assignment in communications. After successfully completing boot camp, the 29 young men were
bussed to nearby Camp Elliott where they were informed that their special assignment was to develop a
secret military code based upon the Navajo language. Some of the young men laughed, thinking it was a joke,
while others were stunned to silence. For many of these young men had attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs
boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their tribal tongue. The same U.S. Government
that had forbidden their language was calling upon these young men to use it in a dark hour of need.
The 29 young men went on to create the now famous Navajo Code which allowed specially trained code talkers
to send and receive messages in the heat of battle with startlingly accuracy in a matter of seconds.
More amazingly, the enemy was never able to break the code. Some experts estimate that the Navajo code
saved literally thousands of American lives in the war in the Pacific.
The Navajo language remains a national treasure for more than its utilitarian value as a military code. Like all of our American Indian languages, it is part of our national identity, something so uniquely American that, if it were to disappear, a vital part of that intricate fabric we call the United States would disappear with it. And while some may shrug and say it is inevitable or not my concern or not my problem, it would be like a missing piece in a very complex jigsaw puzzle, small perhaps but oh so obvious.