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Tribal members honored for role as code talkers

Basil Heth, American Legion commander for McBride Post No. 257, ties his headdress before entering with the colors carried by Roy Wade, right, before the start of Wednesday’s ceremony honoring the Yankton Sioux code talkers of both world wars at the Fort Randall Casino and Hotel near Pickstown. (Sean Ryan/Republic) 1 / 2
Karen Walker, center, niece of Daniel and Rufus Ross, accepts the Congressional Silver Medal on behalf of Daniel Ross, a World War II code talker, Wednesday at the Fort Randall Casino and Hotel near Pickstown. Basil Heth, left, American Legion commander of McBride Post No. 257, presented the award to Walker, who was accompanied with other members of the family, including Rufus Ross’ daughter, Marlys Fluto, right (Sean Ryan/Republic) 2 / 2

By Marcus Traxler

PICKSTOWN — Karen Walker watched the television in amazement, witnessing more than 300 families getting honored in November for the role of code talkers in World War I and World War II in Washington, D.C.

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At the time, she had no idea that two of her uncles were among those to play important roles in winning World War II, and that Daniel and Rufus Ross were two members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who served as code talkers.

The Ross family and the Yankton Sioux Tribe were honored Wednesday in a ceremony at the Fort Randall Casino, bringing local recognition to the secretive members of the nation’s war effort from the 20th Century.

Walker said she was filled with excitement and honor for her family’s role as code talkers, especially because there was never any hint from her deceased uncles when they were living because they did not discuss their war stories.

“It’s just exciting,” she said. “We never knew. We didn’t know when he had passed and we just had no idea.”

The role of code talkers was largely a secret for more than 50 years after World War II and it’s believed that many of those who served in the U.S. with their language took that secret to their grave.

The code talkers were crucial to the war effort, starting with their use in 1918 as part of World War I. Code talkers were used in World War II, as well, but primari- ly in the Pacific theater.

The American Indians’ language barrier was a safe way of communicating without the enemy being able to learn the code, primarily because the languages were difficult to learn and hard to track with different accents, allowing the Americans to pass messages quickly.

Rufus’ son, Dallas Ross, received word soon after the November ceremony about his family’s role. He said while it would have been nice to honor his father while he was still living, it was still a fitting honor.

“It was just part of the family word,” Ross said. “They told them not to say anything and my family kept its word.”

“Dallas told me and I said, ‘No, for heaven’s sakes,’ ” Walker said. “I saw it on TV and didn’t think anything of it. I feel so honored to be able to participate in this.”

The Yankton Sioux Tribe was one of four tribes to have code talkers serve in both World War I and World War II.

More than 30 tribes were honored in November at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., recognizing tribes that had code talkers assisting in the war efforts of World War I and World War II. In that honoring ceremony, each tribe received a gold medal for their service and each known code talker or their family received a silver medal, each with a special design for the tribes honored. In the case of the Yankton Sioux, the U.S. Mint designed a medal that has two code talkers on one side and a bison skull painted in honor of Yankton Sioux veterans on the other side.

Yankton Sioux Tribe Chairman Robert Flying Hawk accepted the tribe’s gold medal on behalf of its people during the ceremony, which included spiritual songs and prayers and a “wiping of the tears” ceremony, which was to allow veterans to put the bad memories of war past them through the help of the spirit.

In November, the local commander of the American Legion post Basel Heth and Elmo Eddy, the 92-year-old veteran who is the last living tribe member to serve in World War II, accepted the medals on behalf of the Yankton Sioux. Eddy was unable to be at Wednesday’s ceremony but Heth said it was hard to put into words the honor of being at the initial ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“A good many lives were saved with these actions,” Heth said. “People ask where it began and I say that is about our language; I don’t think it ever began anywhere. It always was here with our people.”

Local veterans service officer Dennis Rucker estimated there were at least a dozen more Yankton Sioux code talkers that we’ll never know about. On Wednesday, those in attendance honored all veterans and code talkers.

“It helped us be what we are today. A free people. And among our Indian communities, a proud people,” said Galen Drapeau Jr., who administered the wiping of the tears.

The ceremony was held as part of the annual South Dakota Tribal Transportation Safety Summit, which runs through today and includes all of the state’s tribes, who present on the status of transportation and safety in their communities. Seven other South Dakota tribes were also honored with Congressional Gold Medals for code talkers service in November.

The Congressional Gold Medal is considered to be among the highest honors a civilian can receive, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal is awarded by an act of Congress and requires two-thirds passage by both the House and Senate.

Hare, who serves as the Yankton Sioux’s transportation coordinator, reiterated that this was a “once in a lifetime” and that most of the people in attendance in the dinner hall would never see anything like it again.

“These are very special men,” he said. “Very special warriors.”