News

How Indigenous languages helped transmit secrets during WWII

We spoke to the last of the living Mohawk code talkers.
November 15, 2018, 7:55pm
Levi Oakes sits on the Knighthawks' bench waiting to walk onto the field

As a new crop of younger Indigenous people have taken up roles on the front lines of language revitalization, there are still elders across First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities that have held onto their language — and in one incredible case, used them to transfer codes in World War II.

Louis Levi Oakes (who goes by Levi, or his nickname “Skin”), is one of 17 Akwesasne Mohawks recognized by the U.S. Congress as a Native American code talker.

On the Quebec side of the Akwesasne reserve, that straddles Canada and the United States, I’ve followed a chain of phone numbers passed along to me by family and close relations to set up my visit with Oakes, the last surviving Mohawk code talker.

My dad and I walk across the road to where Oakes, a recipient of the Congressional Silver Medal, is sitting on a sunny wooden porch with his friend Dennis Lazore. They spend a lot of time together because they are, according to Oakes, the “only ones who speak Mohawk” (despite me knowing my own grandmother lives further down the road, and she is also fluent in Mohawk).

In his 90s, and sitting in a wheelchair with a white sweatshirt and wispy white hair, he asks my dad and I a question in Mohawk that we don’t understand — my dad explains that he can only speak English because his grandmother had told him that it wasn’t good to speak your language.

Oakes grew up speaking Mohawk, learned from his parents, and didn’t think he would eventually get to use that language when he enlisted at the age of 18 with the U.S. army.

It was when he was serving as a Technician 4th Grade with Company B’s 442nd Signal Battalion, stationed in the South Pacific, New Guinea and Philippines, that he came across the voice of his first cousin over communications and they began talking back and forth from different bases in Mohawk. “When you’re far away like that and you hear someone from home … it sure was nice to hear him,” Oakes says now.

During WWII in the U.S. and Canada, the Allied armies recruited Indigenous men to use their languages to send crucial intelligence, like troop movement or ammunition needs, to ensure that the messages wouldn’t be decoded by enemies. The codes — in Cree, Ojibway, Hopi, Comanche, Navajo, among others — were either alphabet-based, where a word in their mother tongue stood in for each letter of the English alphabet, or just a straight translation of the message into the Indigenous language. These codes, the only unbroken military codes in history, were employed across Europe and the Pacific. In Canada, 4,300 First Nations, Inuit and Métis people participated in WWII, and Mohawk was one of 33 Indigenous languages used to send messages between U.S. forces. Navajo is one of the more well-known languages used, because of the 2002 Nicolas Cage-Adam Beach film Windtalkers. Several Canadians played a role, with Métis and Cree men from Alberta and Saskatchewan given the task of using their Cree language as secret code for the American 8th Air Force.

Oakes remembers transferring codes of Mohawk words to another Mohawk speaker across bases. “If you can’t transfer your words, your communication, you’ve got to go out there and run through the jungle,” he says.

Oakes was honoraby discharged on February 15, 1946, and then spent three decades as an ironworker in Buffalo, New York and the highway department at Akwesasne, before he retired.

Oakes and I sit at his kitchen table, next to some pull tab tickets and a fruit bowl. He lives here with his adult daughter Dora. The walls are covered with framed certificates, medals, flags, and photos of him being honoured at local legions and professional lacrosse games from Washington, D.C. to Buffalo, New York.

These honours bestowed on him have been a recent development — he wasn’t able to reveal that he was a Mohawk code talker until about eight years ago, when the U.S. Department of Defense sent him a letter allowing him to speak freely about his code talking role in the war.

All those years he hadn’t shared with his family that he was a code talker, and didn’t share any details, says Dora. Oakes says he doesn’t care too much about talking about it. He’s friendly though about some of his experiences, although hard of hearing, and has been involved in speaking engagements and met a steady stream of dignitaries.

One of those visitors includes the Member of Parliament Marc Miller, who visited Oakes at home and presented him with a symbolic medal. Miller, the first MP who to speak the Mohawk language in a session of parliament, also read a letter to Oakes in the language. Oakes says he likes all the attention he’s been getting from having used his language in WWII.

Interestingly enough, language transmission occurred in the South Pacific, but a different kind of language transmission didn’t happen in his own home. Only four of his 10 children speak the language. Dora, who calls herself one of the “younger batch” of his children, cannot speak Mohawk. Many Indigenous people of a certain generation cannot speak their mother tongue because of a system of government policies that aimed to eradicate Indigenous languages in the name of assimilation. The most notable policy in Canada is the Indian Act of 1876, which forbade Indigenous people from speaking their languages, and included the formation of residential or boarding schools, in which school children were punished for speaking their languages.

Dora shows us photos when he was inducted in the Veterans Hall of Fame, when he got his congressional medal, a flag that flew over Washington, photos from when he was in the service and when he was discharged. And before we leave, Dora digs out a t-shirt with her father’s face on it, that says “My language helped save my country” to give to my 4 year-old, who I’ve made count to 10 in Mohawk for him.

Cover image of Levi Oakes, sitting on the Knighthawks' bench in 2017, waiting to be honoured by the Rochester lacrosse team. Photo by Alex Hamer.