By Jim Kent
The families of 17 Standing Rock Sioux veterans are receiving Congressional Gold Medals in honor of the men’s service as code talkers during World War I. The men were among those fighting in the trenches along the Western Front in France seven years before Native Americans were granted citizenship by the United States government. Standing Rock Sioux Veterans Service Officer Manaja Hill says the tribe’s World War One code talkers served to defend their people and ancestral lands.
“Their commitment and their willingness to fight for, truly, our way of life, and our land, their families, their relatives,” Hill said. “Truly that’s what it was because there was none of this patriotic stuff that goes on now. We weren’t citizens. They weren’t citizens. What they fought for was what they believed in and that came from the heart. It can’t come from anywhere else.”
Hill also adds that for the Lakota, it was less a matter of talking in code than of simply speaking their own language to each other..
“During this period of time I think very few of our ancestors knew the English language,” he said. “The people who were listening – even on our side – couldn’t understand what they were saying. So I think the term code talker is misinterpreted to a large degree because our ancestors didn’t know how to speak English.”
The Standing Rock Sioux was among nearly three dozen tribes that used their Native languages as an unbreakable code to communicate vital information during World Wars One and Two. The code talkers were often not recognized at the time and for decades after because the strategy was classified. The program that used Navajo speakers during World War II was among the first to go public. They were honored by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and their story was popularized in the fictionalized 2002 film The Wind Talkers.
The Standing Rock code talkers were first honored by Congress in 2008. In all, 63 Standing Rock Sioux veterans were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.