Last Lakotah code talker dies

( – promoted by navajo)

Clarence Wolf Guts, the last Lakotah code talker, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 86, at the South Dakota State Veterans Home in Hot Springs. During World War II, he transmitted vital messages for U.S. forces in a code that the enemy could not break:  his native language.

At the age of 18, he enlisted with the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Pacific theater where he transmitted messages in a Lakota-based code that the enemy could not translate. Lakota and other indigenous languages, long discouraged by educational institutions, would play a critical role in winning the war.

The Story of Clarence Wolf Guts

Much about Clarence Wolf Guts is confusing, beginning with his name. He doesn’t know what he was called when he was born on Feb. 26, 1924 in the Red Leaf community on the Rosebud Reservation of south central South Dakota. His birth certificate lists him as Eagle Elk, but his father and uncles soon decided to give him a more unusual name – Wolf Guts.

Clarence learned Lakota from his grandparents; but, later, boarding school teachers discouraged him from speaking it. His experience was not unique.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, many American Indian children attended government- or church-operated boarding schools. Families were often forced to send their children to these schools, where they were forbidden to speak their Native languages. Many Code Talkers attended boarding schools. As adults, they found it puzzling that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service. (Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian)

Clarence served his country enthusiastically and unselfishly. When a general asked Clarence to help with coded communications, he responded, “I don’t want no rank, I don’t want no money. I just want to do what I can to protect America and our way of life.”

Hear Clarence Wolf Guts in an interview (audio recording).

Contributions of the Code Talkers

The website of the National Museum of the American Indian includes a short history of the code talkers.  The Congressional Record of June 18, 2002, includes this acknowledgement of the specific contributions of “Sioux” code talkers.

1. Sioux Indians used their native languages, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Sioux, as code during World War 11.

2. These people, who manned radio communications networks to advise of enemy actions, became known as the Sioux Code Talkers.

3. Under some of the heaviest combat action, the Code Talkers worked around the clock to provide information which saved the lives of many Americans in the Pacific and Europe, such as the location of enemy troops and the number of enemy guns.

4. The Sioux Code Talkers were so successful that military commanders credit the code with saving the lives of countless American soldiers and being instrumental to the success of the United States in many battles during World War II.

Recognition

For decades, details of the code talkers program were classified. After the program was declassified, Congress passed laws formally recognizing their contributions. Navajo code talkers received medals in 2001.  But, it would be another seven years before Congress passed the “Code Talkers Recognition Act,” authorizing medals for representatives of other tribes that served in World Wars I and II. By then, only two Lakota code talkers were still alive, including Charles Whitepipe and Clarence Wolf Guts.

See the CSPAN video and transcript of June 18, 2003 House Hearing on “Code Talkers Recognition Act.”

Roll of Lakota Code Talkers

Eleven Lakota code talkers mentioned by name in the Congressional Record (2002 Code Talkers Recognition Act). As of last Wednesday, all have passed away.

Eddie Eagle Boy, Simon Brokeleg, Iver Crow Eagle, Sr., Edmund St. John, Walter C. John, John Bear King, Phillip “Stoney” LaBlanc, Baptiste Pumpkinseed, Guy Rondell, Charles Whitepipe, Clarence Wolfguts.

May the world forever remember their courage and patriotism, so long hidden from public awareness.

Tributes

“I am deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Clarence Wolf Guts. He and his fellow Code Talkers have had a lasting impact on the course of history and helped lead the Allies to success during World War II.  He will be greatly missed, but his contributions to our state and nation will live on.” – Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota)

“Clarence Wolf Guts was an American hero; he was courageous and self-sacrificing. I have a great deal of respect for Clarence and for the extraordinary contributions Mr. Wolf Guts made to our country. The efforts of the Lakota Code Talkers saved the lives of many soldiers, and for too long went unrecognized. Kimberley and I wish to express our sympathy to his family during this difficult time.” – Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota)

Endangered Languages

As with other indigenous languages, fluency in the Lakota language continued to dwindle after the War. In 1969, schools and organizations on the Pine Ridge Reservation began trying to reverse that trend. It has been a struggle, though. Elders, who now make up 60% of the speakers, were punished as children for practicing Lakotah language and culture, which are entwined and inextricable.

Many elders here blame the language’s downfall on Catholic boarding schools, where they were sent as children. Lakota culture and language were forbidden.

Philomine Lakota, now a Red Cloud Indian School language teacher with wide-set shoulders and a commanding presence in the classroom, attended a boarding school, where speaking the language was akin to rebellion and was promptly followed with punishment.

The sting of a ruler slapped against the back of her hand still burns in her memory, as does gagging and choking while they washed her mouth out with soap.

It is no easy task to preserve a language in an environment dominated by another.  But, can the world afford to lose a language in which the word for child, wakahyeja, translates as “sacred being?” A language with no word for hate? I think not.

Hear the Lakota language here and here. Read more about indigenous languages in Indians 101:  American Indian Languages, by Daily Kos diarist Ojibwa.

Precious Legacies

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York), speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2002, offered this assessment of the value of native languages.

Without the valiant efforts of these patriotic members from many of our Native American communities, our Armed Forces would not have been able to deceive our enemies as effectively as they did. The rare beauty and intricacy of our Native American languages turned out to be our most secret of weapons, and to our code talkers, America owes a great debt of gratitude.

Our code talkers are an example of how the richness of our American heritage became a strength that no adversary could possibly match or overcome. America’s freedom endures because our military commanders turned the linguistic heritage of our Native American tribes into an unprecedented asset of warfare.

Services for Clarence Wolf Guts

Traditional Lakota services for Clarence Wolf Guts will be held at 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 22, at the TNT Center.  Burial with full military honors will take place at Black Hills National Cemetery at 2 p.m.

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