Watertown Daily Times
June 9, 2018
By Frank Difiore
AKWESASNE — Louis Levi Oakes — the last living Mohawk code talker — was awarded the New York State Liberty Medal from the state Legislature on Friday.
Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, presented the medal to Oakes at a ceremony held at the American Legion Post 1479 in Akwesasne.
“It’s a real honor and a privilege to present this award today,” said Little, speaking to a small crowd gathered at Post 1479.
The Liberty Medal is “one of the highest civilian honors issued by New York state,” according to a St. Regis Mohawk Tribe press release, and is bestowed upon individuals who have “merited special commendation for exceptional, heroic or humanitarian acts and achievements.”
Oakes, who attended the event with his family, received the medal from Little herself, along with a certificate acknowledging the state Legislature’s recognition.
Oakes was also presented with a plaque that will record his induction into the New York State Veterans’ Hall of Fame, which occurred last month.
Oakes, now 95, was one of 23 Mohawk code talkers — 17 officially confirmed, six unconfirmed — who used the Mohawk language to encode communications during the Second World War.
“They passed secrets and strategies … and the enemy forces were never once able to break that code,” said Little.
After receiving the medal and various certificates, Oakes spoke briefly to Akwesasne TV about the event.
“I’m very proud of it,” said Oakes. “Thank you all,” he added, gesturing to the small crowd that attended the ceremony.
Oakes served in Company B of the 442nd Signal Battalion as a technician 4th grade and took part in operations in the South Pacific, New Guinea and the Philippines. After 2 1/2 years in the service, he was honorably discharged in 1946.
After his discharge, Oakes worked as an ironworker in Buffalo and later worked in the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Highway Department.
In 2016, Oakes was awarded the Silver Star — the third-highest honor given to soldiers for “gallantry in action” against enemies of the United States. The medal was presented to him by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, alongside the families of the deceased 16 code talkers.
While the ceremony on Friday focused on Oakes, officials noted that the example and deeds of the code talkers as a whole were being honored in this recognition.
“Your spirit and memory, your acts of courage, will always be with us,” said Dwight Bero, adjutant for American Legion Post 1479.
Tribal Chief Michael Conners referred to Oakes as a “national hero” and credited him for helping to keep the Mohawk language alive. Conners’ own grandfather — Louis “Stanley” Conners — was also one of the Mohawk code talkers.
“It highlights how precious our language is,” Chief Eric Thompson said after the ceremony.
Thompson — a major advocate of Mohawk language education — noted the irony that the Mohawk language provided a boon to the United States in wartime when the federal government had previously and later made attempts to suppress the use of Native languages.
After the ceremony, American Legion Post 1479 provided refreshments for those who attended the ceremony.
Several other prominent veterans in the Akwesasne community attended Oakes’ medal presentation on Friday, including World War II veterans Barney Rourke, Jack Leaf and Hubert Jock, and Korean War veterans Peter Back and Peter Sunday.