Despite enduring generations of oppression and deprivation by the United States, indigenous Americans have a long and distinguished history of serving in the very armed forces that were often used to suppress them or their ancestors. Many did so for their own personal reasons, or because they sincerely believed in the values of the country they became part of, whatever its flaws and shortcomings in practice.
Last week, several of these Native American veterans was finally honored for their underappreciated yet invaluable service. As Juneau Empire reported:
[Jeff] David Jr. was one of 200 individual code talkers or their family members who received a silver medal at Wednesday’s ceremony. Each of the 33 tribes recognized received a gold medal. The medals were engraved with a design specific to each tribe.
Native American languages were used during World War I and World War II. Their use is credited for saving the lives of many service members. An estimated 400 to 500 Native American code talkers served in the United States Marine Corps.
America’s indigenous languages were ideal for U.S. war efforts because they were known to very few people outside of their respective tribes, and many are isolated from languages native to other parts of the world. Code talkers were specially trained to use their language so that only they could understand it. A Tlingit code talker would have used a special set of words that might have sounded like nonsense to another Tlingit speaker who wasn’t a trained code talker.
“It made me really proud of my dad” David Jr. said. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake”.
Of the relatively few Americans who know about the code talkers, most associate the practice with the Navajo, who made up a majority of code talkers, or the Cherokee and Choctaw, who pioneered the strategy during the First World War. Only over the last couple of decades have these obscure heroes been honored. Smaller but no less important tribes, such as the Tlingit, Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche, are only recently being given formal due credit (Only in 2008 did Congress officially pass an act honoring every code talker who served in the U.S. military during the world wars with a Congressional Gold Medal.)
As Juneau Empire points out, the recent awards ceremony offers validation in more ways than one.
For the tribes recognized during the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s speech might have best summed up the irony of having the U.S. government recognizing Native American languages in a positive way.
“In the late 1800’s, The United States government forced Native American children to attend English-only boarding schools”. Reid said. “Native Children were torn from their families, taken far from home in box cars and buggies, given English names and forced to cut their hair short. Teachers beat the children with leather belts when they spoke in their native tongues”.
The government told them their language had no value. But the children held onto their languages, culture and history despite great personal risk. And in this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed.
Commander William “Ozzie” Sheakley, who oversees the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, received the medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe. Sheakley said Reid’s speech was validating.
“We’ve been talking about how we were treated for years and years and years, and nobody seemed to care”, Sheakley said. “Now it’s coming out from other people, which is kind of nice to hear”.
It might be small and belated comfort in the grand scheme of things, but for proud, close-knit, and historically conscious tribes like the Tlingit, it must make a world a difference.