Keith Little, Navajo Code Talker,1925- 2012

Keith Little – Navajo Oral History Project

“My weapon was my language, and that language probably saved countless lives.”

Keith Little, Navajo Code Talker,1925- 2012

 Photo by Tom Grier/Navajo Oral History Project.

Keith Little
War: World War II, 1939-1945

Branch: Marine Corps
Unit: 4th Marine Division; 6th Marine Division
Service Location: Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands); Iwo Jima; Marshall Islands; Pacific Theater
Rank: Private
Place of Birth: Tonalea, AZ

After a hardscrabble upbringing, Keith Little was determined to contribute to the war effort when he learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The problem was, he was only 15 years old at the time and had to wait two years to enlist.

A stranger signed for him to become a Marine, and Little signed up for the code talker program. Little witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific Theater, while helping to maintain communications with a code that the Japanese couldn’t crack.

Keith Little was Tódách’ái’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for Tl’ázá Láná (Many Goats Clan). His chei was Tábaahá (Water’s Edge Clan) and his nálá was Kiyaa’áanii (Towering House Clan).

Keith Little Explains the CodeKeith Little Explains the Code  –  Photo by Tom Grier/Navajo Oral History Project.

Interviewer Ann Ramsey:
So what was it like when you were a child? What did you do? Did you go to school?

Keith Little:
Well they didn’t let me go to school because at that time back in the 1930s the government and the Navajo tribal police were forcing kids to go to school. And any time one of those people came around I was hidden someplace, either put over the hill or herd sheep so that they won’t see me, and I wanted to go to school. So one day I ran away and went to — caught a ride to Tuba City and went to the boarding school and tell them I wanted to go to school.

Interviewer Ann Ramsey:
Did you like going to school? What did you learn?

Keith Little:
Well I was just like any-other kid without — they were very strict about talking in your own language, Navajo, and I could not talk Navajo at school. So that kind of makes you — forces you to learn English, you know, at whatever levels you can, the fastest way you can; and I did that. I learned a few words like, “going to the wash room,” “washing up,” saying “hello” and saying “good morning” and things like that. And then writing. I learned to write. You know I wanted to write very bad so it was interesting. But for many years, well it was kind of hard for me to hold that pencil [laughs] or do any reading. I had a hard time learning to read. But the school is what I wanted, and I think the reason is that he said, “Go to school, learn to be like a white man, do things like the white man.” And I see white people wearing clean clothes, have a nice haircut and they always wear a white shirt or something like that and they were always in authority too. So I figured well, the essence of the thing was that the older peoples say that when you learn to talk and listen, work like a bilagaana, someday you going to be like that. So that’s the way I wanted to be.

Interviewer Ann Ramsey:
I think I remember you saying something about you felt as though Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack?
Keith Little:
Well the Pearl Harbor attack on Sunday, December the 7th — I was in school at Ganado Mission School in Ganado, Arizona. And we had gone to church that day and then had our noon meal, and then Sunday evenings they don’t serve meals. They usually serve real dried up peanut butter sandwich and a fruit and maybe a boiled egg with it, and it was never enough for us. So a bunch of us would go down and cook some rabbits down in the hole, down in the watch. So we had all the meal cooking, got our sandwiches and took it down there to have a feast, then we forgot that there was no salt. So one guy had to run back to the dormitory and get some salt. A time later he came back, running real hard. He was panting and couldn’t get a word out and we all looked at him, stared at him. What was the matter with the guy? And pretty soon he finally spilled out the words. He says, “You guys, the United States has been bombed,” he said. And we all looked at him, “What?” The United States had been bombed. “Where?” “Pearl Harbor

Keith Little-Jessica 0026 Photo by Tom Grier/Navajo Oral History Project.


Keith helps tell the important story of the Code Talkers through his role as president of the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation.

Little was among the most vocal of the remaining Code Talkers, always preaching about the preservation of the Navajo traditions, culture and the language that the federal government tried to eradicate before he and others were called on to use it during the war. Little traveled the country advocating for a museum near Window Rock that would house World War II memorabilia, tell the stories of his colleagues, and serve as a haven for vets.

The Veterans History Project, Winona State University, Dine College, and the Navajo Times

Keith Little Interviewing

 Photo by Tom Grier/Navajo Oral History Project.

Keith Little – Navajo Code Talker – Living History Video

After hearing about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while in boarding school, Keith Little chose to enlist in the U.S. Marines. He went to Communications School and became one of the legendary Navajo Code Talkers, seeing action on Iwo Jima, Roi Namur, Saipan and other Pacific locations. Keith helps tell the important story of the Code Talkers through his role as president of the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation.

Project completed by:
Robbie Christiano – WSU
Jessica King – DC
Shawn Tsosie – DC

This documentary film was researched, photographed, edited and produced by students of Winona State University (Winona, Minnesota) and Diné College (Tsaile, Arizona, Navajo Nation) during summer 2009.

This documentary film is archived at the Navajo Nation MuseumNavajo Nation LibraryWinona State University Library, and Diné College Library, and will be archived at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The film is part of the Navajo Oral History project, a multi-year collaboration between the Winona State UniversityMass Communication Department and Diné College– The official Tribal College of the Navajo Nation