Saturday, June 8, 2019

Mohawk Code Talkers

I apologize for the long blog silence—and shame myself for it. These posts are a way of putting something new I have learned or deciphered into memory. They’re recordings of my own life lessons. And I’ve been lazy for weeks.

Enough of philosophy: an article in Wednesday’s New York Times—and a book I am reading—are, together, responsible for returning me to the blogs. The Times piece was about a Mohawk WW 2 veteran:

"Louis Levi Oakes, the last of the Mohawk code talkers, who helped American soldiers triumph in the Pacific Theater during World War II, along with code talkers from other tribes, died on May 28 at a care facility near his home on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation in Quebec. He was 94."

The book I’m reading is David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Treuer’s contention is that American historians and the American public have, for the most part, stopped Indian history at 1891, at Wounded Knee. Our popular perceptions and written accounts of American Indians today follow the lead of historians and assimilationists at the turn of the last century. With the help of allotment and religion, the “Codes of Indian Offences” of the 1880s, boarding schools and “Termination,” Indians would, it was assumed, disappear. They would “become white,” and their languages, regalia, religions, dances, songs, and entire cultures would be left in museums and the photos of Edward Sheriff Curtis.

They were called the “Vanishing Indian,” and their story—Indian history—stopped as they vanished, with Wounded Knee in 1891.

Over the years there have been cracks in this narrative, stories of Indians that remind us of their continued presence on indigenous lands; occasional stories that are actually chapters of the nation’s history. Some of those cracks show pain: boarding school stories that have emerged in documentaries and, in our region, in a powerful play called “Ghosts of Celilo,” that played in Portland and should have played across the country; and the awful stories of today of Indian women raped and murdered in outrageous numbers in Canada and America.

Other stories show resilience, pride, and contribution to the American story. Indian art is collected; The National Museum of the American Indian is visited by thousands from across the country and the world; a powwow circuit brings Indians and non-Indian Americans together in celebration; salmon runs are saved and revived by Indian fisheries programs.

But no story says more about Indians’ continuing presence and important participation in the American story than that of the code talkers. The Navajo code talkers of World War II were known—if not widely—before war records were released in 1968 and books and movies appeared. When Chester Nez, the last of the original Navajo code talkers, died in 2014, I read and wrote about it.

In the obituary of Louis Oakes, we learn about code talkers from other tribes, including the Hopi, Comanche and Mohawk. We learn that some 30 indigenous languages were used in battle in that war. And that there were Choctaw code talkers in World War I!

When Chester Nez, a U. S. Marine who served in the Pacific, died, the obituary noted that the language he used to help his country—our country—in World War II had been washed from his mouth with soap in a boarding school. There is something emblematic of the continuing relationship of majority America—even as it has grown and changed over centuries—in this story of an Indian child who is asked to erase his language and culture, and then, years later, given a Congressional Gold Medal for his use of it as a warrior in our country’s defense.

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