Congress honored representatives of 33 Native American tribes Wednesday for the work that "code talkers" did during World War II, creating a language that allowed the U.S. military to communicate securely, saving thousands of lives.
According to McClatchy newspapers, the clandestine program, which was not revealed until decades after the war, required some 200 Native American conscripts to use their languages to create codes — a vocabulary of hundreds of words — that the Germans and Japanese were unable to break.
Only one code talker, Edmond Harjo, 96, of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, was present at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. Most of his fellow code talkers have died, The Washington Post reported.
The idea of using the language skills of Native Americans originated in World War I and was reprised in the second war.
The government once punished Native Americans for speaking their language, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska recalled at the ceremony.
"Here you've got your government that's yanking you out of your homeland and uprooting you from your culture, and your commitment to serve your country was still paramount," she said, according to McClatchy.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also noted that the U.S. government "turned to a people and a language they had tried to eradicate," according to the Post.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner also spoke at the ceremony: "Heroes who for too long went unrecognized will now be given our highest recognition."
Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, observed that the code talkers recalled the war era sacrifices of Japanese and African Americans who "often were barred from full participation in American life" yet served the country "with pride, with patriotism, with honor, with sacrifice."
In 2001, President George W. Bush had honored Navajo code talkers from Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Wednesday's ceremony recognized the contributions of Native Americans from other states as well.
Among those awarded medals were tribal representatives from Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy noted at the ceremony that Native Americans have the highest per-capita rate of military service.
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