The Code Talker


At just 15 years old, Peter MacDonald was ready to save the world.

This wasn’t about games or comic books. MacDonald was one of many Navajo teens who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps to help his country defeat the Nazis. With his fellow “Code Talkers,” MacDonald helped develop an encrypted form of communication—the only military code in modern history that wasn’t broken by an enemy. He served in the South Pacific and North China from 1944 to 1946.

The International Storytelling Center is proud to announce that Peter MacDonald will soon appear at the National Storytelling Festival for a special Storytelling Studio presentation. Tickets will go on sale on ISC’s website this Tuesday, September 3.

MacDonald was one of hundreds of American Indians (and about 420 men from the Navajo tribe alone) who joined the U.S. military during World War II. They used their native tongues for top-secret military communications.

It was a powerful act of generosity and reclamation given the many ways in which Native Americans had been mistreated by the federal government, which didn’t count American Indians as citizens until 1924. During World War II, many states still didn’t give American Indians the right to vote.

The deeper irony of the Code Talker project was that the U.S. government had tried to assimilate Native American children into white culture through forced attendance at militaristic boarding schools. At these schools, away from their families and everything they knew, kids like MacDonald were harshly reprimanded when they lapsed into their first language instead of using English. The punishments could be harsh, especially since the schools themselves had militaristic overtones. Another irony was that this terrible treatment meant that Code Talkers adapted readily to military life in a way that their white counterparts often did not.

Despite these atrocities, American Indians served honorably in every branch of the U.S. military. The elite Code Talkers unit consisted of many different tribes, though Navajo members comprised the majority. Their mission was to send top-secret messages about everything from the location of the enemy to information about transportation and supply lines. They also kept the Allied powers apprised of mission-critical plans.

Though MacDonald didn’t travel East until 1944, other Code Talkers were recruited as early as 1941. The training was rigorous, involving highly specialized communications work on top of basic training.

Since the Code Talkers hailed from many different tribes, they developed and used a multitude of codes rather than one overriding form. While the semantics of these codes is quite intricate, they can be broadly divided into two types. Type One codes were based on Native languages that were twisted into an encrypted alphabet system. For example, the original Navajo Code Talkers (there were 29) associated each letter of the alphabet with a Navajo word (usually an animal, such as an elk). They would then speak the coded words to spell out messages in English.

Type Two codes were closer to the tribal languages themselves. Since these languages weren’t spoken at all by outsiders, they were indecipherable to unfriendly ears.

Some code words—militaristic jargon for planes, weapons, and other gear—had to be invented from scratch.

MacDonald and his colleagues served in some of the war’s most dangerous battles. Their specialized work required a calm mind and deep intelligence under extreme duress. MacDonald served with distinction. By the time he was honorably discharged, he and the other Code Talkers had saved thousands of lives.

In Jonesborough, MacDonald will be in conversation with Tim Tingle, an Oklahoma Choctaw storyteller. In addition to his experience in the war, MacDonald will discuss the Navajo tribe’s current project to preserve its incredible language.

Without it, the world might have been a different place.

Peter MacDonald will soon appear at the National Storytelling Festival for a special Storytelling Studio presentation. Tickets will go on sale on ISC’s website this Tuesday, September 3.

Stories in Motion is a regular feature in which ISC examines the fresh ways we see the power of storytelling at work in the world.