AKWESASNE, Que. — A funeral will be held Saturday for the last of the Mohawk code talkers from the Second World War, Louis Levi Oakes, who died peacefully on Tuesday surrounded by family at age 94.
Oakes was the last surviving member of a group that used the Mohawk language to help relay encrypted secure messages to Allied forces during the Second World War — one of 33 native languages used by U.S. troops to share vital information.
“Levi was one of Akwesasne’s most respected elders and the remaining survivor of the World War II Mohawk Code Talkers,” the Akwesasne Mohawk Council wrote in a statement posted to Facebook. “While stationed in Louisiana, Levi and other Indigenous soldiers received training as code talkers using their traditional first languages.”
“Levi was a man who utilized his language unselfishly to preserve the freedoms bestowed upon us today.”
According to an obituary published this week, Oakes joined the U.S. Army at 18. He and 22 fellow recruits from Akwesasne used their unique language skills to help American troops as Mohawk language code talkers in the South Pacific, Philippines and New Guinea.
Oakes was awarded the American Silver Star for courageous conduct, before being honourably discharged in 1946. In 2016 he was among the Indigenous code talkers that received the Congressional Silver Medal.
In December 2018, Oakes was also honoured for his service by the Assembly of First Nations and members of Parliament in Ottawa, and met privately with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Oakes was born Jan. 23, 1925, in St. Regis, Que., on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk territory that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state.
Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan wrote on Twitter this week that Oakes’ loss will be deeply felt, but he will never be forgotten.
“As an 18 year old Mohawk from Akwesasne, Levi Oakes joined the U.S. Army to fight in the Pacific,” O’Regan wrote. “By sending messages in his own language that couldn’t be understood by the enemy, Levi saved untold lives.”
According to his obituary, he worked in iron in the Buffalo area for three decades before returning to work for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, retiring as public supervisor after 30 years of service.
It said he enjoyed gardening, driving around the community on his machinery and weaving rugs, and he cherished the time he was able to visit with his children and grandchildren.
“Levi Oakes was an inspiration to many, was truly a treasured Akwesasronon, and will forever be remembered as a hero, and a family man,” the council wrote, adding flags would be flying at half-mast.
Oakes is survived by several of his children and their spouses, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
A funeral mass will be held Saturday morning at St. Regis Catholic Church, to be followed by a burial with full military honours.
– By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal
The Canadian Press