Members of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe paid their respects last week to a member of their community who helped the United States prevail against our adversaries in the 1940s.
Louis Levi Oakes was the last surviving Mohawk representative of the legendary code talkers.
The U.S. military used indigenous people in World War I and World War II to send coded messages in their native languages.
Mr. Oakes served in the Pacific Theater during World War II in the U.S. Army with Company B, 442nd Signal Battalion. He died May 28 at the age of 94.
The method of using more than 30 native languages remained the only unbroken military code in history. It was a brilliant plan that allowed the United States to send messages that could not be understood by enemy forces.
“During World War I and World War II, hundreds of American Indians joined the United States armed forces and used words from their traditional tribal languages as weapons,” according to the website for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “The United States military asked them to develop secret battle communications based on their languages — and America’s enemies never deciphered the coded messages they sent. Code talkers, as they came to be known after World War II, are 20th century American Indian warriors and heroes who significantly aided the victories of the United States and its allies.”
Many U.S. government officials enacted policies throughout our history to diminish indigenous customs. But we all benefited from the resistance put up by native people to preserve vital aspects of their cultures.
“American Indian nations have always fought to defend themselves. Anyone who threatened their families, cultures, and lands was their enemy, including the United States,” the Smithsonian website reported. “As a result of wars with the United States, many tribes were forced off their lands, relocated or 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. Beginning in the late 1800s, Indian children were forbidden to speak their own languages and punished in government- and church-supported boarding schools if they did. 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. 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. American Indian code talkers were communications specialists. Their job was to send 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.”
Mr. Oakes was born in 1925 in the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne. When World War II began, he enlisted in the Army.
He received training as a code talker in Louisiana along with other Akwesasne Mohawks. He was awarded the Silver Star.
He received the Congressional Silver Medal in June 2016 on behalf of other code talkers. Last year, he was inducted into the New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame and received the New York State Liberty Medal.
“After his discharge from the Army, he worked iron in the Buffalo area for 30 years before returning back to the reservation,” according to Mr. Oakes’s obituary. “When he returned home, he started working for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Department of Public Works, where he retired as their supervisor after 30 years of service. He was a lifelong communicant of Saint Regis Catholic Church and life member of the Andrew W. Cook American Legion Post No.1479.”
Mr. Oakes and his wife, Annabelle, raised seven children. He cherished spending time with them along with his many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
Mr. Oakes was given full military honors Saturday during his burial at St. Lawrence Cemetery in Akwesasne. He was part of a specialized group whose members drew upon their cultural traditions to defend our country. We join all those in commemorating Mr. Oakes’s extraordinary service to his community and our nation.