Congress honors Native American code talkers


In his ancestral Hungjpapha Lakota language, Arnold "Bear King" Hawkins Jr. of San Francisco just told us how honored he was to talk about his grandfather.

John "Bear King" Hawkins fought in the Pacific during World War II. He was one of only seven Lakota Indian code talkers in the entire U.S. Army.

"The code talker was the very first one to cross enemy lines," Hawkins Jr. said.

Their bravery emerged from a bittersweet chapter in American history.

Grandfather John grew up in a mission school in South Dakota, where he and schoolmates were punished harshly for speaking their native tongue.

But when the war broke out, suddenly the Army was desperate for men who spoke American Indian dialects, and they made lots of promises.

"The Army came and they said you're going to have a better life, your family is going to be given things, your children will not be hungry," Hawkins Jr. said.

For a young man growing up in the poverty of a South Dakota reservation, it was too good to pass up.

The contributions of the Navajo code talkers are well-documented in books and movies, like "Windtalker" with Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach. The Navajos got their Congressional Gold Medal in 2000. Now, the other 25 tribes that participated will be honored.

It was dangerous duty in more ways than one. Code talkers were out front scouting enemy locations with a couple of soldiers acting as bodyguards. But if the code talker fell into enemy hands, the bodyguards were supposed to make sure he wasn't taken alive.

"The bravery, the courage," Arnold "Bear King" Hawkins Sr. said. "I can't imagine the terrible things they had to endure."

Without having your own code talker, decoding their language was impossible. Their dialects were never written down and there were no language schools to teach it.

It was handed down from parent to child; something that is becoming less and less common.

As for John "Bear King" Hawkins, he didn't die on the battlefield, although the war did shorten his life. He died in 1945 back home in South Dakota of complications from malaria.

"The recognition for code talkers is way overdue," Hawkins Jr. said. "They're all gone now."

Gone in body, but not in spirit.

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