The more than 400 code talkers had to invent their codes, following the example of a 29-man Navajo pilot group gathered at Fort Wingate, N.M., in May 1942. The Native language formed the basis of the code, but the code was not a language unto itself. It was a series of coinages that conveyed English meaning in words appropriated from a Native tongue. Navajo atsa, meaning eagle, meant "transport plane" in Navajo code. Comanche hutsuu no avakaty, meaning pregnant bird, meant "bomber" in Comanche code. Hopi paaki, or houses on water, meant "ships" in Hopi code. And Choctaw tuli tanampo chito shali meant carrier of big metal gun--a tank--during World War I.
The concept of Native code got its start in 1918 in northern France, when an officer overheard enlisted men Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bob speaking an unknown language--Choctaw. "A corps of eight fluent Choctaw speakers became the first American Indians to use their Native language to send secret messages in modern warfare," according to the exhibit.
After Pearl Harbor, the Marine Corps came up with the idea of refining Native languages into codes. Many Native speakers, including Lakota, Dakota, Crow, Choctaw, Menominee, Seminole, Chippewa, Oneida, Kiowa, Pawnee, Cherokee, Cree, Assiniboine and others used their Native languages for battlefield communications. Each Native language functioned as an indecipherable code, and each speaker conveyed secret information. But the exhibit maintains that full-fledged Native code developed only from the Navajo, Comanche, Hopi and Meskwaki languages.