Washington – In a ceremony that many believed was years overdue, 33 tribes — including three from Wisconsin — on Wednesday received Congressional Gold Medals to honor code talkers who used their native languages to transmit messages in World War II.
The ceremony adds what could be a final chapter to a years-long effort to recognize the singular contribution of the code talkers.
"They made a difference," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared as he began a series of speeches by congressional leaders and other lawmakers in the U.S. Capitol's Emancipation Hall.
Among those tribes honored Wednesday: Wisconsin's Oneida Tribe of Indians, which had four code talkers during the war, the Ho-Chunk Nation with seven and the Menominee Nation with five. None of the Wisconsin soldiers lived to see their once-secret service recognized.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who co-sponsored the 2008 legislation authorizing the creation of the medals, credited code talkers for saving countless lives by being able to use their native languages to transmit in seconds secret battlefield messages that would have taken a coding machine at least 30 minutes to send.
Enemy forces never broke their code, Kind noted.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, also put the code talkers' contributions to the U.S. war effort in dramatic terms.
"They saved lives, and they won battles," Cole said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the code talkers formed a band of brothers that helped free an entire continent.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said rarely has one group been so crucial to a nation's military success. Yet, McConnell said, so little was known for so long about their service.
Roughly a decade ago, Navajo code talkers were honored.
"Today, we honor the rest of the code talkers, whose extraordinary skill and heroism will be remembered as long as the history of modern warfare is told," McConnell said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put their service in historical perspective by recalling the treatment tribal members often endured.
At one time, Reid recalled, tribal members were barred from using their native languages and were not considered legal landowners because they could not speak English. When war came, those tribal members were called upon to use those same languages to help defeat the enemy, languages so obscure they were viewed as a "perfect secret weapon."
Leaders of the Wisconsin tribes described the ceremony as moving.
"It was a long time coming for this type of recognition," Ho-Chunk President Jon Greendeer said. "It was very educational, and I think it brought a lot of value to some of the contributions that Native Americans have made during wartime."
When asked why he thought it took years to hold the ceremony, Greendeer said: "A lot of things go uncelebrated in American Indian culture."
He also cited the reluctance of the World War II generation to talk about what they had accomplished. "Real warriors, real soldiers, they don't boast about the things they've done," he said. "They walk a very humble road."
Oneida Chairman Edward Delgado also cited the official secrecy that surrounded the code talkers' service for decades after the war ended.
Menominee Tribal Chairman Craig Corn said it was significant the code talkers were recognized for fighting for freedom.
"I think it was outstanding," Corn said of the ceremony.
After the official ceremony, survivors of the code talkers and others received medals at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Pauline Schuyler of Green Bay, whose late husband, Lloyd, was a code talker, received one of those medals. "Nice. I liked it," she said afterward.
She said her husband spoke of his service only a few times, and even she did not know many of the details.