Late afternoon in early April, and his eyes were closed, short gray hair combed back and hands folded just above his waist. The casket was open, the lower half draped with an American flag. The top revealed a 96-year-old man: dark brown skin, white shirt and black suit tucked into white satin lining, the words “In God’s Care” embroidered on the inside of the lid.
Pews in the funeral home chapel creaked as people sat. A baby bawled. Conversations and murmurs filled the air. Then a dozen deep male voices filled the room with a dirge in the Mvskoke language for Edmond Andrew Harjo, the last Seminole code talker.
The code talkers were elite Native American military units that used their own tribal languages to create and transmit fast, unbreakable coded messages, serving in both World Wars I and II. They’re credited with saving countless lives in theaters around the world.
Edmond Andrew Harjo, Battery A, 195th Field Artillery Battalion, was one of them. He died in Oklahoma on March 31 after receiving a Silver Star for his participation in the Battle of the Bulge and, later, the Congressional Gold Medal. He was one of the last ties to the code talkers.
Exactly how many code talkers served, and how many Native languages, like Mvskoke, were used is still largely unknown because of varying degrees of documentation, the existence of both official and unofficial code talker programs, and a dwindling population of actual participants. An estimated more than 600 code talkers from 33 tribes served in the two world wars, but some people suspect that others have been lost to history.
The legend of the code talkers is one that has, for the most part, been documented since the declassification of the program in 1968. However, there are only a handful of Native veterans who have had their stories chronicled. As part of an ongoing series, Al Jazeera America hopes to document the experiences of Native veterans and how war affects tribes, cultures and lives.
“Where the grass is green, there was a house there. This is where Andrew grew up,” said Rick Harjo, Edmond Andrew Harjo’s nephew, as he looked into a thicket of trees where only a dilapidated wood shack once used for storage remained.
“Right there, there’s a well lined with rock,” said Harjo as he peered deeper into the woods. “It had some of the coldest water. We would use it as a refrigerator — put the butter and the milk down in that well, and it tasted cold. So that’s the old home site.”
Nineteen years before the elder Harjo was born, two young Seminoles were burned alive by a mob of white settlers, who accused them of the murder of a white woman, a crime they most likely didn’t commit. The two men grew up on a land allotment adjacent to Harjo’s childhood home, which burned down around 1960. No trace of it remains today. Nearby, a cotton field once grew, as well as a cattle pasture. There’s also a school, where Edmond Andrew Harjo (to his family he was always Andrew) most likely learned the piano, which he played until his death.
“He just loved the music,” said Rick. “He worked on exercising his hands all the time because he was afraid of arthritis getting into his hands and then he couldn’t play anymore.”
Yvmv, estemerketvn, tehoyv nayof
It was a religious hymn, which roughly translates as “When I Pass This Suffering.”
Here, the suffering, when I pass through
I must pass through, I must pass through
Jesus, I will be with
He knew the song, and the language. He went to find who was singing.
“It was a Creek from the Muscogee area,” Rick recounted.
Muskogee, Okla., sits on the eastern boundary of the Muscogee (Creek) Nationand is about 100 miles east of Maud, Okla., Andrew’s hometown, located on the western boundary of the Seminole Nation, his tribe.
The two men introduced themselves and began talking in Mvskoke. Then, a coincidence: an officer overheard their conversation and asked what language they were speaking.
“He asked them if they’d volunteer for a new unit of code talkers,” said the younger Harjo.
The first documented use of an indigenous language as code occurred in World War I, when Choctaw soldiers utilized their language to aid war efforts. As American troops advanced in Europe, they were shelled mercilessly by the Germans. The reason? German eavesdroppers were collecting intelligence from frontline radio and field-telephone communications.
“In the American unit, an infantry unit from Texas, one of the officers overheard some of his men talking in a language he didn’t recognize,” said David Hatch, a historian with the National Security Agency. “He found they had a National Guard unit that had a percentage of Choctaws, and he got the brilliant idea of using the Choctaws as communicators. They did that and completely fooled the Germans.”
With their success, the idea, according to Hatch, was to turn code talking into a regular program, but the war ended before that could take place. However, when World War II began, memories of the Choctaw inspired a new generation of warriors.
“Eventually it was adopted as an official program in both the Army and the Marine Corps,” said Hatch. “[The Army] authorized raising a unit of Comanches, particularly, and Meskwaki. In the case of the Marine Corps, an enterprising journalist who had grown up around the Navajo reservation knew the story from World War I, and he pitched it to the Marine Corps brass. After a test, they also adopted it as an official program.”
Then there were the “unofficial” programs.
“Quite often it was a battlefield innovation when commanders realized they had Native speakers in their units and began to use them,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “We can’t say that we know every circumstance in which that happened, and so that’s the research that has to go on.”
Rick Harjo stood at the podium in the funeral home chapel. He wore a black jacket covered in Seminole patchwork — purple, yellow, turquoise, white and maroon patterns, zigzagged like lightning bolts or the jagged teeth of a saw wrapped in strips around his chest, arms and stomach.
“At this time, I want to acknowledge one of his favorite pieces of music,” said Harjo as he glanced toward his uncle’s coffin. He invited those assembled to sing with him. Then he began: “There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood, no lovelier spot in the vale, no place so dear to my childhood …”
Harjo trailed off, overcome, and the mourners carried the song for him. He rejoined them.
“… church in the vale. Oh, come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wild …”
His voice lowered to a whisper as tears began to well in his eyes.
“… come to the church in the vale, no church is so dear to my childhood …”
He trailed off again, the song finished, and he tried to compose himself. His memories of this song and his uncle were entwined. And he knew that when his uncle sang it he was thinking of a very particular church, the Achena Presbyterian Church, founded in 1884 by Andrew’s father.
“I get emotional because he’s talking to Achena,” said Rick. “If you’ve been to Achena, that’s where it’s located: in the wildwood.”
The word Achena is short for Achena Hvtce, which translates as Cedar Creek. The church sits just a short distance from a small river on a hill, surrounded by woods.
“He liked to play that song, especially when it come to the ‘come, come, come’ — he’d pound that piano!” said Rick. “Jerry Lee Harjo. He sounded great.”
Gravel crunched under boots and loafers as mourners gathered at the newly constructed Seminole Nation Veterans Memorial Cemetery, where Edmond Andrew Harjo became the first veteran to be buried.
Flags ripped in the wind as taps was played, a recording of the song that came from the ceremonial bugle held by a soldier in uniform.
The flag on the coffin was lifted, folded and presented to Rick.
Then a song — “Yvmv Estemerketvn,’’ of course — a prayer, and the cranking of a motor as Andrew’s casket was lowered into the earth.
“The whole notion of Native Americans serving the United States in the military is full of irony and ambiguity and paradox,” said Kevin Gover, who directs the National Museum of the American Indian.
People like Edmond Andrew Harjo and other code talkers faced many attempts by the United States to have their culture and language stamped out, only to see it become a lifesaving asset.
“Everything that made them culturally Indian was suppressed systematically by the United States,’’ Gover said. “And yet they found reason to go to war on behalf of the United States.”
In the case of some tribes, there is an understanding that there are treaty commitments with the United States, and that allies fight together, regardless of history.
The need for Code Talkers diminished shortly after World War II with the invention of electronic voice scramblers. And with access to recordings and languages resources, that once precious resource is no longer a secret.
But while indigenous languages will likely never be used by the military again, the impact of the Code Talkers on past conflicts and future Native service remains undiminished. Native Americans have some of the highest rates of enlistment of any ethnic group and have fought in every American conflict from the birth of the nation to the more recent battlegrounds in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When we fight for the United States we’re fighting for our Indian nation as well,” said Gover.
And between silence, shoddy documentation and time, it’s difficult to know who served as code talkers without extensive research. It’s believed that up to another dozen tribes and languages were utilized during World War II.
“It’s important to realize that they had a real effect on operations,” said the NSA’s Hatch. “Their contributions saved uncounted tens of thousands of American lives. There are a lot of people who survived the war that might not have if the code talkers hadn’t done what they did.”
Rick Harjo said his uncle, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder later in life, was the only code talker able to go to Washington to accept the Congressional Gold Medal. How he used the Mvskoke language in war still isn’t known. Perhaps the Battle of the Bulge, but that’s pure speculation. What is known is that his service earned him an education, a job and the ability to focus on what he truly loved: music.
“Just a few lines this morning, to let you know how happy I am and glad the war finally ended!!” he wrote to his aunt on Aug. 18, 1945. “That means that we may see each others [sic] before now, perhaps next summer who knows. I don’t mind that at all because I know for sure where I’ll be next year in 1946 …. HOME!!” ◆
Read the original here on Al Jazeera America.