Less than two weeks ago, Jeff David Jr. learned that his father, Jeff David Sr. of Haines, served in the United States military as a Tlingit code talker. The follow-up surprise to that unknown piece of family history was that his father would be among those honored in Washington D.C. with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
David Jr. was one of 200 individual code talkers or their family members who received a silver medal at Wednesday’s ceremony. Each of the 33 tribes recognized received a gold medal. The medals were engraved with a design specific to each tribe.
Native American languages were used during World War I and World War II. Their use is credited for saving the lives of many service members. An estimated 400 to 500 Native American code talkers served in the United States Marine Corps.
America's indigenous languages were ideal for U.S. war efforts because they were known to very few people outside of their respective tribes, and many are isolated from languages native to other parts of the world. Code talkers were specially trained to use their language so that only they could understand it. A Tlingit code talker would have used a special set of words that might have sounded like nonsense to another Tlingit speaker who wasn’t a trained code talker.
“It made me really proud of my dad,” David Jr. said. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake.”
David Sr. died in 1987, only a few years after Navajo code talkers were first recognized by President Ronald Reagan. David Jr. said he never knew about his father’s service as a Tlingit code talker until someone at a veteran’s dinner in Haines told him.
“I kind of wish I had known” David Jr. said. “But he had to keep it under wraps.”
David Jr. said looking back on his childhood he’s somewhat regretful that his father and grandparents didn’t speak to him in Tlingit. He said maybe he’d have to go back to school to learn some of the language.
“I’d like to retain the stories,” David Jr. said. “I miss out on a lot when they tell the stories in the Tlingit language.”
For the tribes recognized during the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s speech might have best summed up the irony of having the U.S. government recognizing Native American languages in a positive way.
“In the late 1800’s, The United States government forced Native American children to attend English-only boarding schools,” Reid said. “Native Children were torn from their families, taken far from home in box cars and buggies, given English names and forced to cut their hair short. Teachers beat the children with leather belts when they spoke in their native tongues.
“The government told them their language had no value. But the children held onto their languages, culture and history despite great personal risk. And in this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed.
Commander William “Ozzie” Sheakley, who oversees the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, received the medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe. Sheakley said Reid’s speech was validating.
“We’ve been talking about how we were treated for years and years and years, and nobody seemed to care,” Sheakley said. “Now it’s coming out from other people, which is kind of nice to hear.”
Sheakley said he remembers hearing from his mother that teachers would wash her mouth out with soap if she spoke the Tlingit language.
“She had a hard time, so grandma didn’t want her grandkids to speak it,” Sheakley said.
Despite the federal government’s missteps with Indian termination policy, Alaska Natives and Native Americans have the highest rate of military service per capita — which Sheakley said makes sense.
“I think it was because it was our land, it was our lands first,” Sheakley said. “Our people fought for our land. It’s American land, but it’s Indian land, too. We had to fight for it, otherwise we could have lost it to other foreign powers.”
Mark Jacobs Jr. and Harvey Jacobs from Sitka, George Lewis and Jeff David Sr. from Haines and Richard Bean from Hoonah were the five Tlingit code talkers recognized as part of the ceremony. Sheakley said he’s researching two other men who might have served as code talkers and that there may have been more.
Sheakley said he hopes to have the tribe’s gold medal displayed at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. David Jr. said he’d like to have his father’s silver medal displayed at the new veteran’s home in Haines.
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“The critical role these men played in sparing the lives of fellow servicemen is remarkable. By communicating in spoken code at places like Iwo Jima and Normandy, these fine men forever changed history. Because of them, we were able to relay real-time information on enemy positions, provide directions to troops on the ground, and gather intelligence that helped us end a dark time in the world’s history.”
-Rep. Don Young
“These Tlingit soldiers bravely passed along our nation’s secrets at a very difficult time, but their story should not be a secret to Americans today. Alaska’s World War II history is far too often an untold and unappreciated part of our nation’s history. Our territory was occupied in the Aleutians, our first people represented the Alaska Territorial Guard and our Code Talkers stepped forward with a willingness to defend a nation they had yet to fully belong to. I thank them and their people for their courage and commitment.”
-Sen. Lisa Murkowski
“Today is a proud and long overdue day for members of the Tlingit tribe and the families of the Tlingit code talkers. As a result of the tireless efforts of the Tlingit code talkers in WWII, thousands of American and Allied lives were saved. Few men are so deserving of the gold medal and I was honored and humbled to be able to witness the recognition of these five brave, patriotic men.”
-Sen. Mark Begich