Opening on April 21, 2012
“My language was my weapon.” —David Patterson (Navajo), 4th Div., U.S. Marine Corps.
“The secret of war lies in the communications” – Napoleon
Many stories from World War II have become legend, such as the Doolittle Raid and the battle of Iwo Jima. Some amazing stories are still waiting to be told. The Smithsonian exhibit “Native Words, Native Warriors” examines one of the most intriguing collaborations to take place in the history of the US military.
It was December 7th 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, in the months after Japanese victory in the Pacific seemed an inevitable reality. As the Japanese continually monitored American military communications to their advantage the Americans came up with the most improbable solution, the use of Native Americans and their unique language. The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Native American dialect. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the U.S Army and Air Corps they could never crack the Native American codes used by the Marines. Some men discovered that words—in their Native languages—would be their most valued weapons.
Native Words, Native Warriors, developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), will tell the remarkable story of soldiers from more than a dozen tribes who used their Native languages while in service in the U.S. military. The Petaluma Museum was selected to be the exclusive California exhibitor, running from April 21st through July 1st.
“We are extremely proud to be hosting an exhibition from such a prestigious institution,” explains Joe Noriel – Museum President. “The Code Talkers received little recognition for their service after the war, even though their efforts were instrumental in the victory in the Pacific. We are honored to tell the story of these unsung heroes”.
The exhibition will also include local artifacts and stories representing local tribes.
The exhibition will coincide with Memorial Day. The Museum will offer free admission to Veterans on that day.
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.
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.
The exhibit examines the sharp turnaround many of the Native Americans 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.
A special speaker series has been developed for the exhibition. Native Americans have served in many conflicts and offer unique perspectives on their experiences. Larry Yepez a Native American who served in Vietnam will speak on May 12th at 3pm. Mr. Yepez is currently participating in an upcoming Smithsonian exhibition on Native American soldiers serving in Vietnam. A speakers list is available on the museum web site – www.petalumamuseum.com
Admission is $5.00 general, $3.00 Seniors and Children under 12 years. Children under 5 are free.
Docent lead school tours are available by appointment. For more information please call Joe Noriel at 707-776-7534.
Developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service with generous support from Elizabeth Hunter Solomon, the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, and the AMB Foundation.