Politics surrounds code talkers

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WASHINGTON ? Competing bills to recognize code talkers from all tribes, including the Lakota, are now a factor in the tight South Dakota race for a U.S. Senate seat.

Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D. introduced a bill in the Senate that was blocked by Republican members, some of whom objected to not having their states included.

In the House, Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., who is running against Johnson for the Senate seat, introduced a bill that is moving along. The two bills differ slightly in detail, but convey the same honoring message.

The competing bills speak to an Indian vote in South Dakota that political observers say could be crucial to the Senate race. Six years ago, Sen. Johnson defeated then Senator Larry Pressler, and it was the Indian vote that pushed him to victory.

A spokesperson in Johnson's office said it was no secret that some Republican House members had an interest in supporting the Thune candidacy, but he would not openly say whether the hold on Johnson's bill was politically motivated.

Senator Johnson was co-sponsor of the bill that recognized the Navajo code talkers in the 106th Congress. The Navajo code talkers received Congressional Gold medals for their service.

Johnson's legislation would likewise recognize members of the other 17 tribes known to have provided a similar service in World Wars I and II. Thune's bill also asks for Gold Medal recognition for the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota code talkers.

Both legislators refer to the recent "Windtalkers" movie about the Navajo code talkers as reason to honor more code talkers.

"This legislation serves to recognize all the brave Native American servicemen and women who served as code talkers during both World War I and World War II. It is my hope that every code talker who served during either war will be recognized," Johnson said.

Rep. Thune said he worked for months to educate his colleagues in the House about this issue and was sure that recognition and the Congressional Gold Medal would be awarded to the Sioux code talkers.

"These Native American servicemen performed an invaluable service to this country and to the free world. They used their unique skills and served with courage and determination.

"We cannot thank them enough for their sacrifice," Thune said.

Thune expected his bill to move through the house easily. Leslie Knapp, spokeswoman for Johnson, said Johnson would continue to work to get his bill through the Senate. Thune's bill would honor the "Sioux code talkers;" Johnson's included the code talkers from 17 tribal nations.

There were 11 known Dakota, Lakota and Nakota code talkers, referred to as Sioux code talkers. Only two survive today. Charles Whitepipe, a Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, and Clarence Wolf Guts an Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge.

Wolf Guts recently said he didn't believe he was a hero; he was just doing his job as a soldier in the South Pacific.

Many veterans who attended a recent showing of "Windtalkers" were heard to praise the honoring of the code talkers, but also said that most American Indian servicemen served in the military not to become heroes, but to fight for their country.

"We were not heroes, we were soldiers, that's all," one veteran, who was not a code talker, said.

American Indians have served in the U.S. military in every war since the Revolution. In the most recent wars, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War, American Indians hold the record for the highest per capita enlistment rate of any ethnic group.

Dakota, Lakota and Nakota code talkers, in addition to Whitepipe and Wolf Guts, who would be honored posthumously include: Phillip "Stoney" LaBlanc and Eddie Eagle Boy of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe; Edmund St. John, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe; Walter C. John, Santee Sioux Tribe; Guy Rondell, Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe; John Bear King, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Iver Crow Eagle Sr. and Simon Brokenleg, Rosebud Sioux Tribe.