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Code talkers' contributions honored in national museum exhibit

WASHINGTON - ''Than-zie tlo-chin: Ashdla Chal Din-neh-ih Bi-tsan-dehn: Hash-kay-gi-na-tah taa n-kih tsostsid Tabaha Ah-di a-la-ih tseebii nos-bas-nos-bas Shi-da Klesh ma-e ah-jad be-la-sana ...''

No need to say it 20 times fast; no need to guess the language or memorize it. But after the exhibit ''Native Words, Native Warriors'' at the National Museum of the American Indian, thousands of people are likely to get a feel for it. For as translated into English, the message ends with two lines that still say a lot, more than 60 years later:

''At 1800 U.S. flag raised on Hill 165.

Iwo Jima secure. Over.''

So before the most iconic battlefield image in American history was conveyed by photograph, before the flag-raising at Mount Suribachi had inspired books and films like ''Flags of Our Fathers,'' ballads to Pima Marine Ira Hayes and architecture like the new Marine Corps museum at Quantico in Virginia, news of it was conveyed by Navajo code to headquarters.

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Navajo, Comanche, Hopi and Meskwaki Marines developed actual Native codes in World War II that helped the Allied command coordinate troop movements, direct artillery, request bombardment from ships, call in air cover from Navy carriers and stay updated on battlefield action. Navajo code - in heavy use throughout the Pacific theater of the war, with two code talkers assigned to every battalion in the Pacific - was never broken. The original 211-word vocabulary of Navajo code tripled over the course of the war, reflecting expanded use of the code.

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.

Navajo code talkers, as the most numerous of them all, get their fair share of the glory. The NMAI exhibit on the code talkers coincided with the NMAI National Powwow at the Verizon Center. Trips back and forth between the venues were encouraged, and on a return from the museum a bulging pack of people had blocked the spacious Verizon Center hallways. The Navajo code talkers were signing memorabilia at a booth.

But the exhibit suggests there's plenty of glory to go around on this one. The first Allied dispatch on D-Day, from Larry Saupitty at Utah Beach, calling in reinforcements as Nazi guns decimated the first wave? Comanche code.