U.S. military commanders had a big problem during World War II, when the Japanese routinely broke their codes, making it easy to predict the actions of American troops.
Enter 29 Navajo "code talkers" --- made up of farmers and sheep herders --- who went to Camp Pendleton in California and used their language to create a code that the enemy could never figure out: Turtle meant tank, chicken-hawk meant dive-bomber, and Wo-La-Chee represented the letter "A."
Overall, the U.S. military relied on 33 tribes to aid the effort during World Wars I and II, beginning in 1918, saving countless lives along the way.
On Wednesday, Congress awarded gold medals to the tribes during a ceremony at Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol, along with more than 200 individual code talkers and their families.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said the code talkers showed "what it takes to be the bravest of the brave" and joined a long line of congressional gold-medal recipients, including George Washington, the very first, in 1776.
"Heroes who for too long went unrecognized will now be given our highest recognition," Boehner said.
Under the military's programs, code words were unwritten and had to be memorized by the participants, who were sworn to secrecy for the rest of their lives. The public did not learn about the programs until the government declassified them 23 years after the end of World War II.
William "Ozzie" Sheakley, who accepted a gold medal on behalf of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said the Tlingits had five code talkers, including his uncle. All of them are deceased.
Sheakley said his uncle would never discuss his job as a code talker.
"He took his job seriously," Sheakley said.
Sheakley helped design the medal given to the Tlingit tribe. One side depicts a kneeling soldier holding a radio, while the other features one of the tribe's ceremonial killer whale hats.