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Tlingit code talkers recognized by Alaska Legislature for their efforts during World War II

Mar 12, 2019

Representatives from Sealaska Heritage Institute, Alaska Native Brotherhood, Central Council of Tlingit & Haida of Alaska and descendants of the five known Tlingit code talkers on the steps of the Alaska Capitol on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Sealaska and Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska)

The Alaska Legislature adopted a citation Wednesday recognizing the contributions of Tlingit code talkers during World War II. During floor sessions, representatives and senators spoke about the outsized role that Alaska Natives have played in the military.

Any history buff would know of the Navajo code talkers that developed secret battle communications for the U.S. military.

But until recently, few people knew that Tlingit soldiers also used their language to pass along secret information during WWII.

Former state legislator and former Sealaska Corp. board member Bill Thomas said he was friends with Robert Jeff David and George Lewis, two former Tlingit code talkers that lived in Haines. He didn’t know the role they played in the war until after they passed away.

“We all like to brag about what we did. Neither one of these two could say a word," Thomas said. "I’m totally surprised that these two were able to hold that secret and not let their children or wives or anybody know what they did.” 

Code talker missions were highly classified, and the number of Tlingit people who served in this capacity is unknown.

Thomas attended a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in 2013 where Congress awarded Silver Medals to five deceased Tlingit code talkers. They were Jeff David, Richard Bean Sr., George Lewis, and brothers Harvey Jacobs and Mark Jacobs Sr.

Six years have passed since the medals were awarded, and Thomas felt it time that Alaska recognized the soldiers’ efforts as well.

“It had been too long as far as I was concerned,” Thomas said. “I felt it was disappointing not to recognize these men and the significance they had in the war effort.”

Thomas and Sealaska Heritage Institute recently proposed a legislative citation recognizing the importance of the Tlingit code talkers.

Several senators pointed out Alaska Natives’ high rate of participation in the U.S. military on Wednesday before adopting the citation.

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl said he found it ironic that native languages were used as a tool in the military while they were suppressed in civilian life.

“Many of those Native Americans who served our country so nobly and who saved so many lives with their rapid communications and unbreakable code were punished for using their native languages in schools when they had been younger,” Kiehl said.

Thomas said five flags at the capitol building will fly at half-mast next week in honor of the five known Tlingit code talkers. The flags will then be presented to the families of the code talkers on Monday, March 18 during the Gold Medal basketball tournament at Juneau-Douglas High School.