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Native American code talkers to be honored

November 19, 2013|By Richard Simon
  • Francis Whitebird of the Sicangu Lakota Warriors leads people to the Committal Shelter during services for Lakota code talker Clarence Wolf Guts at the Black Hills National Cemetery outside Sturgis, S.D. Wolf Guts was the last living Lakota code talker. American Indians who sent coded messages to shield U.S. military communications from the enemy during World Wars I and II are being honored this week in Washington.
Francis Whitebird of the Sicangu Lakota Warriors leads people to the Committal… (Ryan Soderlin / Rapid City…)

WASHINGTON -- When Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the famous Navajo code talkers a decade ago, it failed to recognize members of other tribes who also used their native tongues to transmit wartime messages the enemy could not decipher.

This week, the "forgotten" heroes from 33 tribes will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. 

At least one code talker – 96-year-old Edmond Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma – is planning to attend the Capitol Hill ceremony Wednesday.

Representatives of tribes from as far away as Alaska also plan to be there.

“It’s been a long time coming, but much deserved,’’ A.J. Foster, a spokesman for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, told the Los Angeles Times.  

In 2000, President Clinton signed legislation awarding the medal to the Navajo code talkers, whose story was told in the 2002 movie “Windtalkers.’’ 

Eight years later, Congress approved and President George W. Bush signed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to recognize all Native American code talkers for their contributions during World Wars I and II.

During debate on the bill, then-Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) called the code talkers a “forgotten group of American war heroes.’’ 

“Native American Code Talkers of the First and Second World War are true American heroes without whose efforts our troops would have certainly suffered greater casualties and would have certainly experienced slower progress in their efforts to end these conflicts,’’ Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.),  a member of the Chickasaw Nation, said at the time. “For too long, our country has failed to recognize the efforts made by these great Native American citizens.’’

Delegations representing tribes from Arizona, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin also will attend  the ceremony, along with family members of code talkers.

Duplicate silver medals will be presented to about 200 code talkers and the families of those deceased, according to the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

In addition to the ceremony in the Capitol Visitor Center,  a reception will be held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, which is featuring an exhibit on the code talkers.

The government has been stepping up efforts to recognize World War II groups before it is too late.

President Obama signed legislation last summer to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 1st Special Service Force, the U.S.-Canadian commando unit immortalized in the 1968 movie "The Devil’s Brigade.’’ 

Legislation has been introduced to award gold medals to the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, Filipino World War II veterans and World War II members of the Civil Air Patrol.

World War II veterans have been dying at a rate of 420 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of 16 million World War II veterans, fewer than 1.2 million survive today. Only two World War II veterans still serve in Congress. 

Congress has awarded gold medals to other World War II-era groups, including the Tuskegee Airmen; the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs; the first black Marines, known as the Montford Point Marines; and Japanese American members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.

Wednesday’s ceremony can be viewed online at http://www.speaker.gov/live

richard.simon@latimes.com

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