Code Talkers Preserving Freedoms by Preserving Languages

Choctaw Code Talkers via Native Telecom

Choctaw Code Talkers

Today, we pay tribute to those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the freedoms we all enjoy. Memorial Day is also a very important holiday for American Indians, as throughout history Indian warriors have fought to ensure the survival of their tribes, customs and languages. Historically warriors were held in high regard and rewarded with sacred feathers, war bonnets, and shields, recognizing their contributions to their tribe.

This commitment to service by Native peoples continues today. American Indians have a long and distinguished history of service in the United States military. From the Revolutionary War onward, American Indians have served as soldiers, scouts, and in many other vital roles.

Perhaps best known are the Code Talkers, members of the U.S. armed forces who communicated vital information in codes based on their Native languages. During both World Wars, the U.S. used many of the 500-plus distinct North American Native languages as battlefield weapons that saved the lives of countless Americans and their allies.

Comanche Code Talkers

Fourteen Comanche Code Talkers attended basic training at Fort Benning,Georgia, April, 1941. Charles Chibitty is dressed in Comanche dance regalia (3rd from right). The Comanche Code Talkers sometimes performed traditional dance demonstrations for other soldiers. They also had a very successful boxing team, which included Charles Chibitty. Signal Corps photograph. Courtesy of National Archives.

In World War I, code talkers from the Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chocktaw, Comanche, Osage and Yankton Sioux nations served as Code Talkers alongside the 12,000 other American Indian service members who fought in this bloody conflict. Throughout World War II, the Acoma, Apache, Assiniboine, Cherokee, Chippewa/Oneida, Choctaw, Comanche, Dakota, Hopi, Ho-Chunk, Lakota, Kiowa, Menominee, Muskogee/Creek, Navajo, Pawnee, Ponca, Tlingit, Seminole, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and Sac and Fox/Meskwaki tribes were represented by Code Talkers serving among the estimated 40,000 Native service men and women who contributed to the Allied victory.

American Indian languages proved to be one of the U.S. military’s most effective tools during 20th century conflicts. The Navajo Code Talkers’ success in confounding the Japanese military with codes the enemy could not break serves as a prominent example of the value of preserving Native languages. The sacred Diné language is not a written language but an oral tradition, learned and passed on through generations. This unique quality is what gave the United States and its allies a victorious advantage. After the world wars, many Code Talkers worked within their tribes to preserve their languages.  Among them were Navajo Code Talker Teddy Draper Sr., who spent years as a language teacher at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona. Protecting Native languages is essential to preserving the identity and culture of Native nations.

Tribal colleges, recognizing the historical and cultural importance of Native language preservation, are integrating them into their curriculum.  For example, the Comanche Code Talkers are no longer living, and the Comanche have very few fluent speakers today. The Comanche Nation College in Oklahoma was founded, in part, to revitalize the language.  At Aaniiih Nakoda College in Montana, students are required to introduce themselves in their native language. Tribal colleges  encourages students to make culturally informed decisions and helps students define their identities through language.

see all of the medals at or by clicking on the image.

As for the Code Talkers, they were only recently recognized for their contributions to our nation and our freedoms. As we reflect on this Memorial Day, we honor those who did not return from war, including all the Native Code Talkers who are no longer with us. Their contributions underscore the importance of preserving the sacred languages of the North American tribes. Supporting tribal colleges continues that work.

Increasing the capacity of the tribal colleges supports current American Indian veterans and paves the way for future Native warriors to succeed.  Here at the American Indian College Fund, with your support, we are building opportunities for our veterans with the 25th Anniversary Veterans and their Families Scholarship Fund.

Teacher of the Next Generation

Hello my name is Sasha Toribio. I am from Zia pueblo, located in Zia, New Mexico. I attend Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) and for a year and a half I have been studying within the early childhood program. During my fall trimester of 2013 I enrolled in the new early childhood Special Topics course taught by Dr. Danielle Lansing (a course developed under the Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” Early Childhood Education Initiative, administered by the American Indian College Fund).

In the early childhood education Special Topics course I learned about the history of Native American education and why Native students in early childhood program, our future teachers, should care about preserving our Native languages. The whole concept of the Special Topics course was to understand the importance and powerful role of Native language immersion in early childhood curriculum. I completely agree that Native American teachers need to understand that our Native language is important to our culture, tradition, and to our little ones.

Without our language, our people have no culture.  And without culture, we have no tradition.  And without tradition, we have nothing. Our Native language is what separates us from the rest of society. If we lose our languages along with our cultures and traditions, then we lose the long time battle of assimilation. Our ancestors did not fight and risk their lives to give up our culture, so why should we give up our culture now? Our language is very important to what we have left as Native peoples. We are now in what education scholars refer to as a “safe zone,” a place in which Native Americans can speak their language and not be punished. I am glad to be a part of preserving our language because our future generations can have the choice to learn their language. Not every child may have access to learn their language, but at least years into the future there will be someone to teach them. I love that there are people like Tarajean Yazzie (Program Officer of the Wakanyeja ECE Initiative) and Danielle Lansing (SIPI early childhood faculty and Sacred Little Ones Project Director) who care about Native language and culture enough to do something about it.

The Sacred Little Ones project at SIPI has created an opportunity for the Special Topics course to exist and for culturally-relevant learning activities with local early learning centers serving Native children and families to flourish. With the help of tribal college students, we can save our Native languages starting with teaching future teachers the importance of language immersion and cultural preservation.

by: Sasha Toribio, SIPI Early Childhood Education Student

Excerpt from AIHEC presentation by Yazzie-Mintz, T., Lansing, D., & Toribio, S., (2014, March). To become a teacher of the next generation: Counting coup with education in honor of our youngest tribal members. Session presented at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Student Conference, Billings, MT.



Wakanyeja Early Childhood Education Initiative Goes International

The Wakanyeja Early Childhood Education (ECE) Initiative celebrates another milestone; the project story has gone (or flown) international!  Starting April 2 through May 2014, the Switchback Gallery in the Gippsland Centre for Art and Design, in Churchill,  Australia, is presenting the Wakanyeja ECE Initiative’s mono-type prints in a co-curated exhibition entitled, “Flying: A Trans-national cross-cultural print exchange.”  Head Start teacher and project partner, Vibeka Mitchell, is the featured artist on the gallery announcement.  Ms. Mitchell’s print, “Navajo Life” is explained as follows:

My picture [depicts] my life story and what is important to me as a Navajo woman. I am from Naschitti, NM. I love the landscapes of the Navajo Reservation. Monument Valley is my favorite. I am a Christian and I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church. I am a Head start teacher and I love to work with Children. I want my students to learn who they are, where they are from, and their history of their family. Being so confident and proud of my heritage makes me a strong Navajo.


In June 2012, TCU early childhood faculty, early childhood teachers, parents, and community members convened in Boulder, Colorado to attend the annual Wakanyeja Annual Convening.

Twenty-five representatives participated in collaborative discussions, engaged in shared learning experiences and completed a workshop in which they produced mono-type prints.

The mono-type prints were intended to be a part of a traveling exhibition within the United States and to international countries, surfacing dialogue about Indigenous education across many landscapes.



To engage in sustained efforts to strengthen early childhood learning opportunities requires the critical engagement of many. The images illustrate the participants’ early learning experiences, inspirations, and hopes for the future.









The images featured in this international exhibition invite diverse audiences to join the conversation, and to learn about the social, cultural and educational transformation facilitated by the Wakanyeja ECE Initiative’s grantee teams.


Sara Wescott
Learning and Love in
Constant, 2012
16 x 20

 Join the American Indian College Fund and the Wakanyeja ECE Initiative in celebrating the first international exhibition of the Wakanyeja ECE Initiative mono-type print series.

Flying: A Trans-national cross-cultural print exchange

Switchback Gallery:


Posting by: Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, Program Officer, Wakanyeja ECE Initiative


Brennan- Keepers of the Menominee Forest

It is estimated the Menominee Nation had owned nearly 10 million acres which comprised of eastern half of Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and even a small part in northern Illinois. After several treaties with the United States Government, the first being in 1821, Menominee now call home to roughly 237,000 acres in Northeast Wisconsin holding a rich history of forestry. Roughly 220,000 of those acres are extensively and carefully harvested.

Chief Oshkosh

The Menominee have harvested timber since the 1850′s and have done so in such a way to ensure bountiful stands for generations to come. A Menominee leader by the name of Chief Oshkosh is given credit for advising his people to “start with the rising sun and work toward the setting sun, but only taking the mature trees, the sick trees, and the trees that have fallen. When you reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the rising sun and the trees will last forever.” With these words, and combining modern forestry techniques, the Menominee forest has become a primary example of sustainable forestry. Their practices have earned multiple state, national, and international awards including the 1996 President’s Award for Sustainable Development, 2004 Outstanding Management of Resources Award by Northeastern Loggers Association Inc., 2008 Friend of the Environment by Wisconsin Environmental Working Group (Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce), and the 2009 Forest Stewardship Award by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. One of the most well-known honors the Menominee have received is to be the primary producer of the 2012 NCAA Final Four floor.

In 1854 the Menominee had purchased a small mill to process their own timber after becoming a federally recognized tribe. In 1908, Senator LaFollette helped pass a law to allow the tribe to expand the mill after a large blow down three years earlier. Known as the Menominee Tribal Enterprise (MTE), their operations have maintained an ecologically viable, economically feasible, and socially desirable forest. MTE employs approximately 125 workers and another 180 forest workers, majority of them being tribal members. These hard workers collect and process nearly 14 million board feet per year. As the forest stands now, it is estimated to be home to 1.7 billion board feet which is more than the estimate of 1854 at 1.2 billion board feet. In the history of Menominee forestry, over 2.25 billion board feet have been harvested.

Collected tree ring samples.

With the successful negotiations between Menominee leaders and the United States government,t the tribe avoided relocation in 1848 and continue to call our reservation “home”, respectfully. Menominee tribal members do not financially benefit from MTE operations a great amount but benefit just as well with the natural resources which thrive as a result of sustainable forestry. I asked fellow tribal members what the forest means to them and with the majority response being, “…it provides wood for heating homes, wildlife to hunt, plants and medicines to care for our people.” To me, the forest is a place to find serenity after a long week of school, and work. As young Menominee, we all have been taught that everything around us is a living being. From rocks to the trees, you can speak and they will listen. With this in mind, we have also been taught to take only what is needed in order to preserve the plant or animal life so others can gather. This background is one of the main driving forces to my current educational and future goals.

Currently, I am a Biological & Physical Science major at College of Menominee Nation. After a summer internship in 2012, I found what I would like to do for the rest of my life. With a professor and students from University of Wisconsin-Platteville, a fellow Menominee and student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, research was conducted in northwestern Wisconsin to determine the impacts of invasive, European earthworms have on northern hardwood forests, with Sugar Maple trees being the primary focus. Comparing climate data to tree-ring data we were able to conclude these earthworms have a negative growth impact on tree growth. Stemming from this experience I have been given the opportunity to continue tree-ring research on the Menominee forest with a grant from the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP).

Forest Tree Core Sample

My latest project was to update a tree-ring chronology that was conducted in 1983 by Ed Cook. Taking the last 30 years of Eastern Hemlock growth and combing Cook’s data, I have been able to create a climate reconstruction of the last 450 years.
Traditionally, I have been told “trees tell stories” and with this research I have been able to see, listen, and tell their story.

I have been to many places near and far, but I have not been able to discover who I am, and what I want to become, if it wasn’t for discovering something close to home. Realizing what I have outside my door, knowing there is so much more to learn about it, I have been passionate since that first internship in 2012 to study forest ecology and return home to continue the sustainable practices of my beautiful homeland. Along this journey that I choose to travel, I expect to pass the interest on to the younger generation of my people so they too can learn to appreciate what is given to us inhabitants of mother earth and create a life of giving back to her.

Test your Flu I.Q. and Find a Flu Vaccine Clinic Near You with the New Protect the Circle of Life Widget

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has launched a new flu vaccination widget for American Indians and Alaska Natives.  This resource was developed as part of the “Protect the Circle of Life” campaign to raise awareness about the importance of flu vaccination among and to provide user-friendly information on the importance and availability of the flu vaccine throughout Indian Country.

Student Blogger Ulrick: Songs of Tribute Echo in Laughter

Over the past month I’ve been stressed with the load of late homework because I’m a professional procrastinator, and cramming studying for finals. I had completely forgotten about my personal duties. The anxiety weighed heavier on me than in previous semesters, but at the same time I liked it. “Working well under pressure” is what I heard from my instructors a lot, and at the moment I thought it was foolish and stupid, but as it all died down I was proven wrong. I did actually enjoy the feeling but I hope to never have to do it again because it helped me to love and cherish time with family, and friends.

I somehow managed to rekindle old friendships, but regrettably, I missed my godmother’s one-year death anniversary. To be honest, I’m not too good with that kind of stuff. My family had asked that some of us, her children and godchildren, write something and share it with everyone that day. I couldn’t find the words; I felt that anything I’d say wouldn’t do her memory justice because she had done so many great things for our family and our community. Every time I saw her, even in passing, it was like there was the brightest aura around her, and her energy was so strong that even if we didn’t hug it still felt like she had given me one. She is and will be dearly missed.

During this time felt a “push,” both metaphorically and physically. This burst of motivation, to which I hadn’t known where it came from, was very overwhelming. I sought out help from a makai (medicine person.) He didn’t tell me anything new but reassured me that what I was feeling was pure, and possibly from my godmother. It felt amazing. And he said I was also possibly getting support from my friends, family, and even community members I didn’t know! This had never happened to me, to be acknowledged by people, it feels really great.

I still felt I had to give some sort of tribute to my godmother. I don’t follow the Catholic religion like she did, and didn’t want it to be forced, so I did it in the fashion that felt natural to me. I asked one of my best friends, Ivan, to help me sing some of our traditional songs for her. These songs are usually sung with a gourd rattle and animal skin drum. Without hesitation he said yes. We invited some of our friends from the current and former youth council to come out and sing. I feel most comfort in saying prayers through our songs because the songs themselves are prayers. When singing you have the same mindset of praying: you have a clear mind, pray for everyone including the land, plants, and animals; and pray for everyone in the world.

Before we began we all met up and the laughter seemed to echo, bouncing from mountain to mountain. It felt so good to see everyone again. The jokes poured and delayed the songs for a bit, but that didn’t matter. Someone said “Oh man, that O’odham humor!” It set the tone for the night. I explained the reason why I wanted their help in singing these songs and it seemed to fit perfect for everyone. They too felt it was something they needed as well; they needed to give thanks and prayers. Ivan, being the lead singer, asked if there were any requests for songs in specific, but we were rusty, and I didn’t want to call for a song so I let him sing whatever he wanted to share, though I hoped he would sing the “Milky Way” song, a song that if I knew by heart I would sing for my beloved godmother. Midway through he sang it, and it felt really good, like it was a personal dedication to her. I don’t know how long we were sitting on top of the hill singing songs, but just judging by our freezing hands, it was no less than two hours.

The night could not end with one final laugh: all six of us crammed into a black 2008 Chevy Impala with chrome trimming, two in the front and three in the back with Ivan lying across us, and the chairs we had brought. We looked really cool, but when we left, the car scraped the ground because the back seat was carrying a heavy load. We dropped off the chairs at the youth council office, even that was a heavy task because it was so cold that nobody wanted to get down after we all had warmed up by huddling together, so it made a simple job even harder to do. It began with everyone laughing and ended the same way. The only thing that would’ve been even better is if we all had enough money to pitch in to order burgers.

This day had me wondering what others do in similar situations. Do they give thanks? Say prayers? Making a spiritual connection? I’d love to see or hear how others handle things like that.


Welcome Our Guest Student Blogger!

Meet Ulrick Francisco, a social services major from Sells, Ariz. attending Tohono O’Odham Community College. Ulrick will join us for the next year as a contributing blogger on the Think Indian Blog.

Ulrick was inspired to earn his degree in his hometown through service with Tohono O’Odham Community Action, AmeriCorps, and an internship as a photographer. He currently spends his time working in the campus library and working as a custodian in Sells. He is also serving as the student senate president and makes time to frequent the multiple campuses at TOCC. Ulrick finds inspiration in his enjoyment of punk-rock music and from friends spending time doing community work with the younger and elder generations among his tribe. He says this is what helps him stay in touch with his culture.

Ulrick dreams of sustainable agriculture and living for his tribe (and other tribes) and has a particular interest in food, gardening, and how agriculture promotes healthier eating in his community. He says he has much to learn before he can be the ideal member of society he wishes to be. Motivated by seeing how other tribal colleges represent other tribes’ sustainability, Ulrick realized college teaches him the most about how he can be proactive to create sustainable living for his people.

Ulrick created the video below about leadership earlier this year. Please help us welcome Ulrick and leave a comment!

Crazy Bull: Why Tribal Colleges and Universities Matter

The 2013 tribal college presidents in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building.

The week of November 18-22, 2013 was declared National Tribal Colleges and Universities Week through a U.S. Senate Resolution presented by North Dakota Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven, sponsored by 17 Senators and adopted by the Senate on November 14.

Tribal Colleges and Universities are remarkable institutions serving over 80% of Indian Country with 37 colleges that have 75 campuses.  Twenty thousand American Indian, Alaska Native, and non-native students attend these institutions in some of the most rural and remote areas in the United States.  Despite historical oppression of educational access and an extreme lack of adequate resources, Tribal Colleges and Universities graduate teachers, business leaders, nurses, and environmental scientists.  They lead the Nation in the development of programs focused on food sovereignty and wellness.  They promote the cultural and place-based knowledge of tribal people with inclusive and accessible resources and community outreach.

Why do Tribal Colleges and Universities matter?  Often we think back to the early days of the tribal college movement when our insightful and activist elders, spiritual leaders, and educators first began the journey that resulted in the successful tribal colleges of today.  In those days, our relatives aspired to at least be able to have their own people have an education beyond high school.  Their vision included workforce education and training as well as programs that taught the professional skills needed for tribal people to be in the jobs that existed on our reservations – the school teachers, health care providers, and the managers in the government offices.  They believed that tribal colleges could provide this training and education while being true to the tribal knowledge that they knew they had – the knowledge that come from the traditional ways, languages, and kinship of the people.

First class of baccalaureate graduates of Dine College, which marked its 30th Anniversary in 1998 as the oldest tribal college. Graduation day May 15, 1998. photo by John Running

Once Tribal Colleges and Universities were founded, the doors to the intellect and passion of tribal people were flung open, and streaming through those doors came all of the pent-up desires of the people for their own education, their own languages to be taught, and for their own people to be the teachers.  Suddenly the founders and the staff and students of the Tribal Colleges had no boundaries – their aspirations soared on the prayers of the people and the dreams of students and their families.  As the founder of Sinte Gleska University, Stanley Red Bird, Sr., often said, “this is the way it must be,” acknowledging that the Tribal Colleges had no choice but to be everything to the people they served.

Literally thousands of Indigenous people suddenly had access to an education of their own making – they could go to school with each other, in safe places, learning what they needed to know to take care of themselves and their families, and to manage and grow the resources of their Tribes.

Tribal Colleges and Universities matter because without them the dream of a college education is elusive, even impossible for many Tribal people to imagine.  Without Tribal Colleges and Universities, we would have fewer Native teachers, counselors, entrepreneurs, or scientists.  Without Tribal Colleges and Universities there would be fewer Native Studies and Native Language programs.  Research based in the knowledge of place-based peoples would be limited and the significant contributions of Native people to ecological and environmental knowledge, to science, human services, criminal justice, counseling, and health would be practically unknown.

Tribal Colleges and Universities are evidence of the ability of Tribal people to dream, design, and lead their own educational institutions.  They are evidence of our cultural and intellectual knowledge and of the strength of our vision with the help of the Creator.

Tribal Colleges and Universities matter to every student who ever walked through the door – to sign up for one class or many, to finish part of the semester or to walk across the stage with a degree.  A formal education was not taken for granted by our ancestors who have gone before us, by the founders of the tribal college movement or by the students of today.  A Tribal College education is a dream come true.

Manuutuli at her graduation from Northwest Indian College May 2012.

Tribal College Brings Tradition to Life

Between July 15 and August 2, Leech Lake Tribal College held a Community Birch Bark Canoe Building Project. Community members created a 16-foot, late 1800s traditional wiigwaasi-jiimaan (birch bark canoe) from start to finish with Ojibwe language being taught and used throughout the process. See more photos (and like their page) on

Here is the story published in their Summer 2013 Wiindamaage (prounounced ween-duh-mah-gay) newsletter.

For some participants it is a science project, while some see it as a work of art, and others as a living history lesson – and they are all correct. Jim Jones, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is leading a month-long project to teach people about the art and science of building a wiigwaasi-jiimaan, the traditional birch bark canoe used by the Anishinaabeg for hundreds of years.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Five Wings Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, in conjunction with the Leech Lake Tribal College com­munity education program.

Work began in mid-July, as Jones led the group to various areas on the reservation where the necessary birch bark, spruce roots, and cedar timber can be harvested. Temperatures that soared past 90 degrees and Minnesota’s ever-present deer flies gave participants a taste of some of the challenges that come with building a canoe in the old way.

With the raw materials in hand, the group set up shop on the LLTC campus and learned how to properly handle the birch bark to keep it from curling or splitting; how to treat the roots that are used for lacing the canoe in order to keep them soft and pliable, and how to split and finish the cedar logs that become the ribs and wales of the canoe. In addition to being a talented craftsman, Jones is a natural storyteller. His expla­nations of the canoe building process includes information on the mathematics and engineering behind the lightness and stability of the wiigwaasi-jiimaan, but also touch on the history and tradition of the craft as well as his own learning experiences. “This is the sixth canoe I’ve built, and every one is different,” says Jones. “When you’re working with all natural materials you don’t have perfect uniformity, but that’s also what gives each canoe it’s own character and identity.”

While a core group of about 10 workers has done the lion’s share of the work, nearly 150 people have participated in the project to date. Participants have ranged in age from preschool children all the way to elders in their 80s, and included local residents and tourists alike.

Once the canoe is completed, it will be feasted and formally given to Leech Lake Tribal College, where it will be kept. While it will add beauty to the LLTC cam­pus, this will also be a functional work of art, and it will be used to harvest manoomin (wild rice. Each year LLTC has a class teaching people how to harvest rice and finish it in the old way. With the addition of this canoe, people will be able to participate in the entire ricing process in much the same way that it was done centuries ago, bringing art, science, and history together in perfect harmony.

Photo by Vincent Walter/


Guiding Our Destiny with Heritage and Tradition

DOUBLE YOUR DONATION! In honor of Native American Heritage Month, a generous supporter has offered to match ALL gifts up to $100,000!

November is Native American Heritage Month and the theme this year is “Guiding our Destiny with Heritage and Tradition.”

American Indians have made immeasurable contributions to our nation’s heritage and there are countless reasons to celebrate.  You can celebrate with us by visiting our website often this month for fascinating articles, fun activities, delicious recipes, and exciting blog posts from guest writers.

Also, in the midst of this celebration please remember that for American Indians celebrating their heritage isn’t confined to one month. American Indians are striving to keep their wonderful culture and customs alive every day of every year!

And we have an additional reason to celebrate this month! A generous donor has agreed to match any gift, dollar-for-dollar, made to the American Indian College Fund between now and November 15th, up to $100,000, helping to send even more students to college.

Even as we celebrate, we remember just how important it is to continue our work together to ensure that American Indian students have the help they need to lift themselves and their communities through receiving a college education.  We all know education is the bridge from poverty to sustainable self-sufficiency and American Indians living on reservations face harsh realities in life: devastating poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and unemployment rates as high as 90%.  This reality exists 365 days a year.

So this November, we at the College Fund challenge you to support American Indian students… and learn more about the unique and special American Indian culture that has enriched our lives throughout our nation’s history.

DOUBLE YOUR DONATION! In honor of Native American Heritage Month, a generous supporter has offered to match ALL gifts up to $100,000! Please do what you can to help us by November 15! DONATE HERE: