Following a celebration with the Navajo Nation to honor the Navajo code talkers, high above the clouds on the return flight from Arizona to Washington, D.C., Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security Ronald Moultrie and National Cryptologic Museum (NCM) Director Vince Houghton huddled at the rear of the plane, brainstorming ideas to keep the momentum going.
Houghton believed that teaming up with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was an obvious path to continue the preservation of the code talkers’ stories and honor the United States’ indigenous veterans.
Native Americans who used their native language skills in battlefield communications were known as code talkers. The languages were represented in coded form to confuse the enemy with an earful of sounds they never heard before. Their efforts expedited the Allied victory during both world wars.
The National Security Agency (NSA) inducted Native American code talkers into its Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2013. Soon after, NSA presented a plaque to the NMAI in honor of the hundreds of code talkers from at least 33 Native American nations who served in World Wars I and II. At the time, NMAI Director Kevin Gover said the plaque would be displayed at the museum for all to see.
Over the last few weeks, Houghton had several calls with NMAI leadership and emphasized their excitement about the opportunity to collaborate with the NCM and NSA on events and initiatives in the coming years.
“This is our chance to teach the American people about a key part of our history,” Houghton said.
Houghton anticipates partnering with the NMAI to host a local program during the 2024 Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. He has also pledged NCM support toward the construction of a code talker museum in New Mexico, explaining how their state government has already given a $6.2 million grant to the Navajo Nation for the project.
The Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, held each summer on the National Mall in Washington, will feature indigenous cultures in 2024 — a natural forum for a major event honoring all of the indigenous code talkers, including, but not limited to, the Navajo.
“If we have top leadership there at the festival, from NSA to the U.S. Marine Corps to the Department of Defense (DOD) — along with a solid contingent of active duty and veteran members of indigenous communities — then it will be an event that can’t be missed,” Houghton said.
In 2022, the DOD had planned to bring the three living code talkers from World War II to Washington to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the formation of the 382nd platoon of the U.S. Marine Corps — the Navajo code talkers. Ill health prevented the men from traveling, so the event was canceled.
At Moultrie’s request, the Center for Cryptologic History (CCH) and NCM were recruited to support the planning and execution of the 81st anniversary celebration of the code talkers.
To make things easier for the code talker veterans, whose ages range from 95 to 106, the Pentagon decided to go to them in Window Rock, Arizona.
During this visit, Moultrie presented certificates. One of the three living code talkers, Peter McDonald, was able to attend with his family.
Houghton and MGySgt Clayton Hill r epresented NSA/CSS at the celebration, alongside Moultrie and Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness Gilbert Cisneros.
For Houghton, it was an extraordinary experience.
“This will almost certainly be the only time in my life I will see something like this,” he said. “The event kicked off like so many others, but the Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem, and Marine Corps Hymn were all done in Navajo.”
During this visit, Houghton engaged with several notables from the Navajo Nation, including their president, vice president, and speaker of the Navajo Council, and he emphasized that NSA and NCM can play a significant role in preserving their story and presenting it to the general public.
“Their native language was so essential to our victory in the Pacific in WWII,” he said. “It is such an important part of our heritage as an Agency.”