Sealaska Heritage Institute
The Alaska State Legislature passed a citation March 6 honoring Alaska’s Tlingit code talkers for their exemplary military service and the crucial role they played in helping to end World War II.
The citation, which posthumously honored Tlingit code talkers Robert Jeff David, Sr., Richard Bean, Sr., George Lewis, Jr., and brothers Harvey Jacobs and Mark Jacobs, Jr., passed with family members of the men and Native leaders watching from the House and Senate galleries.
Senator Jesse Kiehl called it ironic that the Tlingit code talkers, who were punished in school as children for speaking their Native tongue, were later called upon to use Tlingit to save American lives.
“When wartime came, when they answered their nation’s call, it was in part their languages, their cultures and their connections to one another that was such a strength, that saved so many American service men and women and helped us to be victorious,” Kiehl said from the Senate floor.
“Their story is a testament to the ingenuity, nobility, and bravery of Alaska Native people and highlights the importance of preserving the Tlingit language,” said Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello.
Senator Gary Stevens on the floor made remarks based on the citation, which has not yet been publicly released.
During the war, the Japanese had cracked every code the United States used, but when the Marines turned to Navajo, Tlingit, and other Native American recruits to develop and implement a secret military language, they created the only unbroken codes in modern warfare and helped assure victory for the United States over Japan in the South Pacific.
Navajo code talkers have long been recognized for the crucial part they played in World War II. But until very recently, no one knew that Tlingit code talkers also used the Tlingit language as a code that the enemy was never able to crack. Even the families of the Tlingit code talkers did not know of their secret service.
“They took their orders seriously, to never talk about it,” said Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Commander Ozzie Sheakley, who attended the House and Senate sessions.
“He took it to his grave,” said Krissy Bean, granddaughter of Tlingit Code Talker Richard Bean of Hoonah. “My Grandma Bean (Richard’s wife) did not even know he was a code talker,” said Bean, who attended today’s event.
“I remember asking (Tlingit Code Talker Jeff David) what he did when he was in the service and he would just smile and say ‘Oh, it was the best time of my life. I played basketball, I played in a band,’ ” said stepdaughter Jodi Mitchell after the event. “He never talked about what he actually did.”
“I knew Jeff (David) all my life and he took it right to the grave,” said Tlingit veteran and former state legislator Bill Thomas, who initiated the effort for the citation. Thomas, a longtime veterans’ advocate, said though David often spoke proudly of his accomplishments as a hall-of-fame basketball player and highliner, his amazing achievements as a code talker were never shared. “George Lewis too, he was a storyteller. He would sit there and tell you stories, but he never told one about that.”
Other family members at the event included Verna Adams, daughter of George Lewis, and John David, son of Jeff David.
The program was eventually declassified by the government, and the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 honored every Native American code talker who served in the United States military during World War I or World War II. After passage, President George W. Bush authorized the making of a Congressional Gold Medal of individual design for each tribe and a silver medal duplicate for each code talker.
In November 2013, Congress awarded the silver medals posthumously to the Tlingit code talkers, and Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Commander Ozzie Sheakley received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on behalf of the Tlingit tribe.
Former House Speaker John Boehner reported at the ceremony that “during forty-eight hours on Iwo Jima, they say 800 Native language battle communications were received and translated. It took seconds, at a time when decoding by machines could take half an hour. The men undoubtedly saved lives.”
“We are so proud of our Tlingit code talkers and elated that their contributions were formally recognized and honored today on Haa Aaní, Our Land,” said Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl, who advocated for the citation and attended today’s floor sessions. “They are national heroes.”
Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. Sealaska Heritage Institute also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history, and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee, and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.