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State bill would honor Ho-Chunk code talkers of WWII with new highway designation

After decades of secrecy about Native American vets, Ho-Chunk leader says state recognition 'gives them what they didn't have when they were here'

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Native Americans attend a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
From left, Elieia Chapellla, Velma Wadsworth, both from the Hopi Tribe of Polacca, Arizona, Sandy Winneshiek, and Heather Cloud, both from the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, attend a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, honoring twenty-five Native American tribes who received Congressional Gold Medal, in recognition of the dedication and valor of the code talkers and their service to the U.S. Armed Forces during WWI and WWII. Chapella and Wadsworth husbands’ were code talkers who served the U.S Armed Forces during WWII. “Code talkers” refers to those Native Americans who used their tribal languages as a means of secret communication during the war. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photos)

Donald Greengrass said his father never taught him how to speak his native Ho-Chunk language. But his dad, Donald I. Greengrass, would speak Ho-Chunk with his fellow World War II veterans from the local American Legion.

“People would come over to our house and he would sit there and talk Ho-Chunk with these people,” Greengrass said during a public hearing Tuesday at the Wisconsin State Capitol. “But he would never talk to me about it.”

Greengrass, who is a U.S. Marine Corps and Army veteran, said it wasn’t until after his father’s death that he discovered his dad served as a code talker in the war, using his native language to send secret messages over the radio.

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Serving during both world wars, Native American code talkers are now recognized as essential to the victories of the U.S. and its allies in WWII. But national recognition for their work has been slow, starting more than two decades after the war when the U.S. government finally declassified the program in 1968.

A bill moving through the state Legislature would honor these Native American veterans by designating Interstate 90 in La Crosse County and part of Monroe County as the Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers Memorial Highway.

Greengrass was one of several members of the Ho-Chunk Nation who spoke in support of the legislation during a public hearing on Tuesday. 

Sandy Winneshiek, veterans service officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, also testified in support of the bill. She helped identify 14 members of the Ho-Chunk Nation who served as code talkers in the war and applied for recognition of their service from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Winneshiek, who is also an Air Force veteran, said the code talkers ranged in age from 15 to 27 during the war, and there are likely more tribal members who are still unrecognized.

“It’s been a long road,” Winneshiek said during the hearing. “I’m really honored to be able to do this for the families.”

The legislation is authored by state Rep. Nancy VanderMeer, R-Tomah, and state Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point. It was passed by the state Senate earlier this month.

During the hearing, VanderMeer said the Ho-Chunk Nation is one of the most recognized tribal nations for code talkers by the federal government.

“Preserving the legacy of code talkers is crucial to honoring their service to the American people and to the nation, and their contribution toward preserving the Ho-Chunk language for future generations,” she said.

Shelby Visintin, a legislator for the Ho-Chunk Nation, said during the hearing that many Native Americans served in the U.S. military before they were recognized as citizens or had voting rights.

“This recognition gives them what they didn’t have when they were here,” Visintin said. “It will be a legacy for the Ho-Chunk people and also the United States.”

The Ho-Chunk Nation and Wisconsin American Legion have registered in support of the bill.

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