On Saturday, June 1, hundreds of Akwesasnoron, joined by representatives from the US military and Canadian Armed Forces laid Louis Levi Oakes, the last remaining Mohawk Code Talker from World War II to rest.
It was a service befitting a hero. It was a memorial service, military honor, and funeral procession unlike any most Native communities ever witness or experience.
Route 37, the main road that runs through Akwesasne, was lined with hundreds of people, including firefighters, law enforcement and uniformed military personnel that stood at attention.
The funeral procession down Route 37, was escorted by some 200 motorcyclists, with motorcycle groups from all over New York State, including the American Legion Legacy riders, Christian Motorcyclist Association, Freedom Riders Motorcycle Club, Patriot Guard Riders, and other local groups and clubs. The rolling thunder procession rumbled beneath a giant US flag draped in an aerial display over the width of Route 37 as though marking a final finish line.
Not since after World War II, when there was a big ceremony for remains that were repatriated, has Akwesasne seen such a memorial with military honors and fanfare.
Louis Levi Oakes, “Tahagietagwa,” Turtle Clan, was 94 when he died on the evening of May 28 at the Iakhihsohtha Lodge at Akwesasne. Oakes was born Jan. 23, 1925, in St. Regis, Que., on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk territory. Oakes joined the Army when he was 18 and served during World War II. He was immediately enlisted to serve as a code talker, once he was overheard speaking the language to another Mohawk service member. He and 17 other Mohawks used the Mohawk language as a communication strategy to elude the enemy in the War. Oakes was the last surviving Mohawk Code Talker.
Native servicemen speaking 33 different languages including Navajo, Comanche, Choctaw, and Hopi were used as Code Talkers by the U.S. military during the Second World War. The US military declassified the program in 1968, but Oakes had taken an oath of secrecy and took that oath seriously, never speaking about his role until nearly 30 years after the program was declassified.
The US Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act in 2008 to honor their service.
Oakes received a service with full military honors. A team of nine soldiers from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry served as military pallbearers. An honor guard rendered a rifle volley of seven fires, shot three times in a 21-gun salute. The Fort Drum Scottish brigadiers came to honor him. The Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Highlanders branch of the Canadian Armed Forces were present. The bagpipes played, the bugles trumpeted Taps, and the United States flag was folded and presented to Oakes’ eldest daughter Diane. The US military 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum gave full military honors and representatives from numerous American Legions and Posts attended.
There was a military flyover of five military helicopters from Fort Drum: Three Blackhawk helicopters and two CH-47 Chinook helicopters flew directly over the grave site.
Peter Garrow is the manager of self-government negotiations with Canada for Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and was involved in honoring vets, including Oakes, from Akwesasne in a ceremony in 2018. He told Indian Country Today that there were so many things about the service, the military honors, the procession that filled him with pride. “It was heartwarming. I was so elated, almost moved to tears to witness all of that firsthand,” said Garrow. “I’ve seen different flybys with their jets, Blue Angels, but having a tribute like this to a quiet man was such a huge honor. I was awestruck and moved.”
Garrow said someone in the community took a video of the military flyover. He said as the choppers were flying along the St. Regis River, there was a whole flock of Canada geese that flew up as if to greet them. “You see the flyover over the river and then the geese came up. The geese looked as if they were rising up to greet the flyover as if joining in the tribute to Levi,” said Garrow. “That was impressive, everything was just fitting.”
John Miller, Lt. Col., Commander 3rd Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment with the 10th Mountain Division said that the 10th Mountain Division wanted to honor Oakes in a special way. He told reporters, “In combat, helicopters bring soldiers home, home from battle, home to where they belong. Today we helped bring Mr. Oakes home."
Oakes earned the Congressional Silver Medal, the third-highest American military honor and the Silver Star, the combat decoration for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States. He was also presented with the New York State Liberty Medal — the highest civilian honor bestowed by New York State upon individuals who have merited special commendation for exceptional, heroic, or humanitarian acts and achievements. He was inducted into the New York State Senate Veteran’s Hall of Fame. The Canadian House of Commons honored him in Parliament, as did the Assembly of First Nations. Quebec Liberal MP Marc Miller visited Oakes at his home and presented him with a medal of honor for his service.
MP Miller delivered a eulogy in Mohawk and called Oakes his hero. “The story of Levi Oakes is an exceptional one, but an important reminder to me that when Canada, when the United States, needed First Nations most, they were the first to stand up and be counted. The statistics bear this out as we know that Indigenous people had the highest proportion of participation to their populations than any other,” said Miller. “The story of Levi Oakes is also a reminder that he used his language to save us while the country he served, as well as the one that counted him as a citizen, consciously and unconsciously attempted to destroy that same language. It is a reminder to me that we need to face this bitter truth and learn from this grotesque error as we try to vitalize indigenous languages.”
It should be noted that Native men who served in World War II did so voluntarily because they were not granted US citizenship. Garrow explained, “We didn’t have to serve because we weren’t even considered citizens.”
Peter “PJ” Herne, legal policy analyst for Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, and Marine Corps veteran, said that First Nations men who had joined and served in the Canadian armed forces had to apply for Canadian citizenship and renounce their Native status. They were denied benefits that were routinely available to all other Canadians once they came home from service.
“They had to apply for any benefits, and in order to do that, (you) had to give up your Native status. It was this way until 1956,” Herne said. “Many people who wanted to serve, turned it down because it meant they’d lose their Native citizenship.”
It was the same way in the US, up until 1924 when US citizenship was granted to Native Americans via the Snyder Act. Historically, Native Americans have had the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups. In many cases they returned as warriors, some decorated and recognized with valor. Yet many faced discrimination in housing, employment, education, land rights, water rights, and didn’t have the right to vote.
Herne harkened back to the words of Sen. McCain who remarked upon Native American veterans who had been denied full rights and participation in American society and were treated as second class citizens: “And still they serve,” he said.
The immense show of recognition and the military involvement in Oakes’ funeral services was significant not only to the Oakes family but to Akwesasne as a whole. Herne said that it showed a level of recognition to Levi for his contributions as a Code Talker, to his generation for their service, and underscored the importance of the Mohawk language itself for its role in defending against the enemy in war.
“To finally have the world give him that recognition was great,” said Herne. “Militarily and historically, his service puts Akwesasne on the map.”
“People only just now are beginning to know and understand the contributions of Native people,” said Garrow. “Going through what he faced in the war was horrendous. But he was very proud knowing that he represented the Mohawk people in the war effort.”
In Indian Country and across First Nations in Canada, Native people will know, remember and celebrate the Code Talkers and their contributions for the greater good of all. And if the US military and Canadian armed forces’ involvement in Oakes’ memorial service is any indication, hopefully, Native peoples’ military contributions, commitment, and legacy will take their rightful place in the annals of history.
Leslie Logan, Seneca, is a writer and PR consultant that has written for Indian Country Today, the National Museum of the American Indian, Aboriginal Voices and Indigenous Woman. She is the former communications director for the Seneca Nation and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.