The Navajo Code Breakers: A Lesson in Historical Empathy

Students learn about Chester Nez, the World War 2 Navajo code talker, who died on June 4, 2014. They consider why he was willing to help the U.S. war effort despite the terrible bigotry that he had endured. Through small group activities, students put themselves in Nez's place to encourage them to empathize with others, and consider how past wrongs can be remedied.

To the Teacher

On June 4, 2014, Chester Nez died. Nez was one of the Navajo code talkers, a small group of Native Americans recruited by the U.S. military during World War II to create and implement a code, based on the Navajo language, that the Japanese could not break. The code was never deciphered, and this success contributed to the U.S. victory in the Pacific. In this activity, students learn about Chester Nez and consider why he was willing to help the U.S. war effort despite the terrible bigotry that he and other Navajos had endured. Through small group activities, students put themselves in Nez's place to encourage them to empathize with others, and consider how past wrongs can be remedied.


  • learn about Chester Nez, the Native American code talker
  • develop historical empathy
  • articulate the complex relationship of duty and loyalty in the context of discrimination
  • identify actions that can address past injustices and the possible consequences of such actions 


Student Reading:
Chester Nez and the Navajo Code Talkers

During World War II, a small group of Navajo men developed a secret code for sending messages among soldiers in combat. The code provided a way to communicate strategic and often life-saving information in a way that the Japanese military could not understand. The code, which was based on the Navajo language, was so successful that it was never cracked. (You can read more about the code here.)
But the story of the code and of the code talkers (those who developed and used it) is complicated, as the life of one code talkers, Chester Nez, shows. Nez, one of the original 29 code talkers, died on June 4, 2014.
Chester Nez was born in 1921 and raised on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. His family raised sheep. But when Chester was a child, the U.S. government decided that the land was overgrazed and slaughtered all the family's sheep (and many other Navajo sheep). After that, Chester's family struggled to survive farming.
Chester attended schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA schools aimed to assimilate Navajo children into white society. Students were forbidden to use their native language. Students who spoke Navajo were beaten or had their mouths washed with what Chester remembered was "a bitter brown soap."  (New York Times)
When Chester was in high school student, a Marine Corps recruiter visited his school, and Chester decided to join. Soon after, Chester Nez and a small group of other Navajo soldiers were asked to create a code based on the very language the U.S. government had punished them for speaking as children. 

Chester Nez recognized the contradiction between how he and his people were treated and the fact that they were called on to serve their country in such an important role. When he joined the Marines, he said much later, "When joining the Marine Corps, I thought about how my people were mistreated. But then I thought this would be my chance to do something for my country."

Because the code talkers' efforts were so important, they sometimes worked for 35 hours straight without a break. But that didn't change their status when the war ended. Native Americans didn't have the right to vote in New Mexico until 1948.
Judy Schiess Avila, who co-authored Nez's autobiography, believes that the difficulties Nez faced as a Native American helped him succeed as a code talker and a Marine. "His story reveals how a hard life—herding Grandma's sheep, attending boarding school where the Navajo language was forbidden, witnessing the government massacre of Navajo livestock—made him strong. His young life prepared him, mentally and physically, to be a code talker."

After many decades, the United States finally recognized the code talkers' contributions. In 2001, the president gave the Congressional Gold Medal to Chester Nez and the other 28 Navajo men who invented the code. In awarding the Gold Medal to the code talkers, President George W. Bush did not mention the injustices Nez and others had faced.  In 2012, Chester, who had had to drop out of college when his G.I. Bill money ran out, was awarded a degree by the University of Kansas.
But Chester Nez never forgot the contradictions. In 2002, he told an interviewer, "All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo, and then to turn around and ask us for help with that same language. It still kind of bothers me."

Reflective writing


Ask students to read Chester Nez and the Navajo Code Talkers. Give them a minute or two to write a short, uncensored response. What is their reaction to this reading? Explain that they don't need to share what they have written. The exercise is just to get them thinking.

A letter to Chester Nez

Chester Nez lived with a big contradiction: he was a member of a group that experienced discrimination by the government and yet he was asked to serve his country - and did.  Ask students to write a letter to Chester Nez that includes questions they would like to ask him, particularly about his decision to serve his country after the way he and his family had been treated.
Next, have students exchange their letter with another student. Ask students to imagine that they are Chester Nez, and that they have just received this letter.  Ask them to respond to their classmate's letter in Chester's voice. Explain to students that the purpose of this exercise is to try to understand how Chester's experience felt to him.
Afterwards, have students give their responses to the person who wrote the letter.
Then ask students to share their thoughts on this experience with the rest of the class.

How can we address injustice?

Remind students that after many years, the United States finally recognized Chester Nez and the other code talkers, and Chester received a degree from the University of Kansas.  
Ask: Do you think them if they think those efforts are sufficient? Why or why not?  
Then ask students to brainstorm ideas about what could be done to address the injustice that the Navajo code breakers experienced. List those experiences.

Divide the class into groups and assign each group one of the ideas. Give each group chart paper and markers. Ask them to make a web: Write the idea in the center of the paper and circle it.  Then around the circle, write the possible consequences of implementing this idea, both positive and negative, and connect those consequences to the circle with a line.  

Have each group share their web, posting it for the rest of the class.

Ask students to go stand next to the idea that they think would be the best to implement, and talk with the other people there about why they think it is the best idea. Have a spokesperson for each group share the group's rationale with the class.

Follow-up Activity

Explain that people have used different approaches to help remedy past injustices. Tell students that two of these approaches are "truth and reconciliation commissions," and reparations for slavery. Divide the class into groups of four. Assign each group one of the approaches. Have the groups complete the following tasks:
a. Research your assigned method for addressing past injustice. Prepare a brief presentation to your classmates explaining what you have learned.
b. In the center of a big sheet of paper, write either "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" or "Reparations for Slavery" and circle it.  Have the group consider: What are the possible consequences of implementing this method --either positive or negative?  Have students write their responses on the sheet, and connect these comments to the circle with a line, creating a web.
c. In groups, have students discuss whether they think their assigned method would be useful for dealing with the injustice that Chester Nez and his fellow Navajo code talkers experienced, and why or why not.
d. Have each group share its ideas with the rest of the class.