American Indian Code Talkers in Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit

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Navajo code talkers (and cousins) Preston and Frank Toledo at Ballarat, Australia, July 7, 1943.
© Photo courtesy National Archives

Stories of American Indian Code Talkers Revealed in Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition

"My language was my weapon."
—David Patterson (Navajo), 4th Div., U.S. Marine Corps.

When the United States issued the call to arms in World Wars I and II, American Indians answered as warriors. Some men discovered that words—in their Native languages—would be their most valued weapons. These unsung American heroes share their stories of strength and courage in a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, opening at the Institute of Texan Cultures on Oct. 19.

"Native Words, Native Warriors," developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), tells the remarkable story of soldiers from more than a dozen tribes who used their Native languages in the service of the U.S. military.

Through oral histories taken from the veterans themselves, "Native Words" celebrates and honors this important but little-reported aspect of American history. In addition to 15 large-scale banners, the exhibition includes videos examining the development of the code, battlefield experiences and the sharp turnaround many of them 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 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.

This inspiring exhibition is made possible thanks to the generous support of donor Elizabeth Hunter Solomon. Additional support has been provided by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee and the AMB Foundation. Additionally, the Institute of Texan Cultures has received a SITES grant in support of family day programming set for the exhibit’s opening day, Oct. 19.

Family Day - 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., Oct. 19

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 19, visitors can participate in activities that involve them in deciphering language, culture and code. Additionally, Dr. William C. Meadows, a professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies at Missouri State University, a recognized expert on the Code Talkers, will offer a lecture on the many nations that participated in the war effort.

The Smithsonian Community Grant program, funded by MetLife Foundation and administered by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), is used to strengthen the connections between museums nationwide and their communities. For more information on Smithsonian Community Grants, visit or email Smithsonian traveling exhibition descriptions and tour schedules are available at

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.

The Institute of Texan Cultures is located on the UTSA HemisFair Park Campus, 801 E. César E. Chávez Blvd., a short distance from the Alamo and the River Walk. Regular hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday.  Admission is $8 for adults (ages 12-64); $7 for seniors (ages 65+); $6 for children (ages 3-11); free with membership, UTSA or Alamo Colleges identification. For more information, call 210-458-2300 or visit


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