Washington, D.C. – Nevada Senator Harry Reid spoke in Emancipation Hall at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring the Native American Code Talkers of World War II. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
According to the first pilgrims to arrive on this continent Native Americans did not farm the land, so they did not truly own this land. According to the pioneers who pushed past the Mississippi, Native Americans were not “civilized,” so they did not truly own this land. According to the prospectors who rushed for the hills of Nevada, California and even Alaska, Native Americans did not speak English, so they did not truly own this land.
Strangers had forced the native peoples from their lands, slaughtered their game, stifled their religions, outlawed their ceremonies and ravaged their communities. Next, the newcomers tried to steal their languages.
In the late 1800’s, The United States government forced Native American children to attend English-only boarding schools. 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.
In the early years of World War II, Japanese code breakers had cracked every American cipher. American military commanders needed a code so obscure – a language so unknown – that even their own decoders couldn’t break it. The perfect secret weapon would be languages all but forgotten outside a few, isolated communities.
The United States government turned to a people and a language they had tried to eradicate. But why would Native American soldiers who had been robbed of their land and their culture agree to use their precious languages to protect a country that had either neglected or abused them for centuries? One Native American Code Talker, a young Navajo man named Chester Nez, put it this way: “Somebody’s got to defend this country. Somebody’s got to defend the freedom.”
No matter how many times the United States government had tried to convince him otherwise, Corporal Nez knew in his heart that the United States of America was his land, too. The corporal was just a boy – a high school student – when he enlisted. Many Native Americans, like Corporal Nez, were so eager to serve they lied about their age to enlist.
These brave soldiers, these Code Talkers, had a special gift – their scared languages – and they selflessly shared that gift with their country. Their gift saved countless lives and helped win the war. And their willingness to share it made them American heroes.