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Since the days of Christopher Columbus, American Indian tribes have long fought to defend their traditional home lands, resources and families. As a result of these battles, many tribes were forced off their lands, and relocated, or rather confined, to reservations where they endured poverty, racism, and attempts to erase their traditional cultures.
Languages were particularly targeted in the government’s efforts to change the American Indians’ ways of life. This attempt to “Kill the Indian to Save the Man” was largely accomplished through federal sanctioned land allotments, termination, relocation programs all of which failed to achieve full assimilation to the dominant culture.
Additionally, beginning in the late 1800s, Indian children were forbidden to speak their own languages and were punished in government—and church—supported boarding schools if they did speak their language or practiced their cultural ways. Most American Indians were not legally considered citizens of the United States until 1924. Even then, some states refused to let American Indians vote until as late as the 1950s.
However, despite this tragic history, many American Indian men and women have served in all branches of the military. In many conflicts and wars, including World War I and World War II, American Indians honorably defended their homelands and the United States.
During World War I and World War II, hundreds of American Indians joined the United States armed forces and at the request of the United States military officials, used words from their traditional tribal languages to develop secret battle communications that the U.S.’s enemies never successfully deciphered.
“Code Talkers,” as they came to be known after World War II, were communications specialists who sent coded messages about troop movements, enemy positions, and other critical information on the battlefield. Some Code Talkers translated messages into their Native languages and relayed them to another tribal member. Others developed a special code within their languages that they used in combat to send important messages. These twentieth-century American Indian warriors and heroes significantly aided WWII victories for the United States and its allies.
For nearly 60 years these unsung heroes remained anonymous to most Americans. Today there are fewer than a handful of “code talkers” still alive, and I am honored to have met some of them. Beyond the code talkers, countless American Indian men and women have reached highest ranks of military service. Today we must take time to honor all veterans, and specifically our Native veterans, who have dedicated their lives to the service to our country.
Robert Cook is managing director of Teach For America’s Native Achievement Initiative. Cook has served for 20 years as a teacher and administrator in American Indian education. Prior to joining staff,Most recently, he was principal of Pine Ridge High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In May, he was appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, where he will advise Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on federal efforts to improve education for Native children and adults. An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe (Oglala Lakota), Cook received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Black Hills State University and a master’s degree in education administration from Oglala Lakota College. He is married to Daphne Richards-Cook, and they have two sons who attend public school in Rapid City, S.D.