ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Sgt. Major Lisa Cowboy, command career counselor for the 20th CBRNE Command, was the guest speaker at the National Native American Indian Heritage Observance held at the Stark Recreation Center on Aberdeen Proving Ground, Nov. 9.
During the month of November, the Army participates in National American Indian Heritage Month by recognizing the contributions Native American Soldiers have made to the Army and the Armed Forces throughout our nation's history.
The Huffington Post recently reported that American Indians serve in the country's armed forces in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group. They have served with distinction in every major conflict for over 200 years and 27 Native Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor.
A member of the Navajo tribe, Cowboy was raised on a Navajo reservation in a small community called Chilchinbeto, just outside of Kayenta, Arizona.
"Life on the reservation was very quiet and simple. Our closest neighbors were about two miles away" said Cowboy.
"My parents still reside at my childhood home next to my paternal grandparents' residence. My family has a ranch, so growing up I always had to round up cattle, horses, or sheep and our favorite pastime was hiking the mesas that surround our home," said Cowboy, who added it was her family's livelihood that eventually determined their surname.
When the federal government was moving the Indians on to reservations, they were given surnames that related to the type of work they did, she said. Since her grandfather was riding horses and rounding up cattle, he was given the name Cowboy.
Of all the Armed Services, she joined the Army because it was the only service that offered a career as an information systems analyst when she enlisted in 1997. Now with slightly more than 20 years of service, she holds a bachelor's degree in information technology and a master's degree in leadership studies from The University of Texas at El Paso. She reclassified her Army occupational specialty to career counselor in 2007 and came on board as the command career counselor for the 20th CBRNE command in August.
At the observance, Cowboy spoke about how, as a young girl, she listened to stories of her great-grandfathers who served with the U.S. Marines as Navajo Code Talkers during World War II.
"In the early 1940s, the Marine Corps recruited 29 Navajo Indians to develop and implement a military code using the Navajo language," said Cowboy. "By the end of the war, there were approximately 420 Navajos that had trained to be code talkers. They would later be largely known as the 'Navajo Code Talkers'."
According to Naval History and Heritage Command, the idea to use Navajo for secure communications came from Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary to the Navajos and one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. Johnston, reared on the Navajo reservation, was a World War I veteran who knew of the military's search for a code that would withstand all attempts to decipher it. He also knew that Native American languages, notably Choctaw, had been used in World War I to encode messages.
Johnston believed Navajo answered the military requirement for an undecipherable code because Navajo is an unwritten language of extreme complexity. Its syntax and tonal qualities, not to mention dialects, make it unintelligible to anyone without extensive exposure and training. It has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest. One estimate indicates that less than 30 non-Navajos, none of them Japanese, could understand the language at the outbreak of World War II.
Cowboy explained that when a Navajo code talker received a message, what he heard was a string of unrelated Navajo words. The code talkers first had to translate each Navajo word into its English equivalent. The selection of a given term was based on the first letter of the English meaning of the Navajo word. For example, "Wo-La-Chee", is the Navajo word for "ant" and would represent the letter "A". Other words such as "be-la-sana" (apple) and "tse-nill" (axe), would also be substituted in order to eliminate excessive repetition, which could have allowed the code to be intercepted. One way to say the word "Army" in Navajo code would be "wol-la-chee" (Ant) "gah" (Rabbit) Na-as-tso-si (Mouse) Tsah-as-zih (Yucca)." Thus, the translation would be taking the first letter of each English word, A-R-M-Y.
The original code the Navajos created at Camp Pendleton, California, had approximately 200 terms and grew to over 400 by war's end, Cowboy said.
"In training, all the codes had to be memorized. On the battlefield, the code was never written down, it was always spoken," she said, "And the code talkers could communicate in 20 seconds what took the technology of that time 30 minutes to do."
The code devised by the Navajo Marines was the only code in the history of American warfare that was never broken and helped the U.S. Marine Corps as they battled across the Pacific from 1942-1945.
The battle of Iwo Jima is one of the finest examples of the code talker's proficiency. During that battle, six Navajo Code Talkers sent over 800 messages without error. Cowboy said that according to Maj. Howard Conner, the Fifth Marine Division's Signal Officer, 'The entire operation was directed by Navajo code. . . During the two days that followed the initial landings, I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock . . . They sent and received over 800 messages without an error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima.'
Following World War II, the code talkers were ordered to keep the code a secret in case America needed to use the code again - which it did on a small scale in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
The code talkers remained silent about their time as Marines until 1968 when the code was declassified, Cowboy said.
Although neither of her biological grandfathers were Code Talkers, Cowboy explained that in the Navajo tradition an elder in the tribe is considered a grandfather to all through the Navajo clanship.
Those stories about her grandfathers are what inspired her to enlist in the Army and continue the American Indian tradition of military service.
"The stories carried a message of perseverance, strength, tradition, teamwork, and survival that I have embraced and leaned on in my own career," she said.
In her closing remarks Cowboy quoted John Brown, Jr., one of the original code talkers who spoke on behalf of the Navajo Code Talkers in front of the members of Congress and the United States Marine Corps, who said, "We have seen much in our lives; we have experienced war and peace; we know the value of freedom and democracy that this great nation embodies. But, our experiences have also shown us how fragile these things can be, and how we must stay ever vigilant to protect them. As code talkers - as Marines - we did our part to protect these values. It is my hope that our young people will carry on this honorable tradition as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow".
"And to the American Indians Soldiers," she added, "Be proud of your culture, never forget who you are, and where you come from."