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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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  (ARCHIVES)Back to Current
The secret language that won the war (02/09/2014)
By Amelia Wedemeyer

Submitted photo
     This 1939 photo of the Littlejohn family includes brothers Lawrence, Edward, Warren, Howard, and Woodrow, along with sisters Florence, Ann, Mary, and Olinda. Edward Littlejohn's father, Grant, and his mother Rachel are also pictured.
It was somewhere in Germany where Ho-Chunk Nation code talker Howard Littlejohn spent the remaining moments of his life, perhaps among the the murky forests in the southern region, cloaked from civilization, or near the barren flatlands of the north. Even though it was April 1945, nearly a year after Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, World War II (WWII) lingered on in some parts Germany, which is where Howard met his fate on the battlefield.

“He was killed in action. He lay wounded there for two days,” Howard’s nephew, Greg Littlejohn, said. “It was cold. Winter was still there.”

As the only code talker among his four brothers who also took the burden of war upon himself, Howard fought on the front lines, where he relayed messages from his tiny radio.

He would speak to a fellow Ho-Chunk code talker in their native tongue, obscuring the information from the enemy.

The words themselves would have a layered meaning, for example: “armadillo” became the word for “armor,” and from there the word was translated into Ho-Chunk.

“Standard deciphering took a long time, and these code talkers could interpret the language in a matter of seconds,” Greg explained. “The sacrifices they made — my God, it just raises the hair on my arms.”

In the end, the enemy never succeeded in deciphering the code.

The language itself

“The Ho-Chunk language is interesting,” Greg said. “It’s actually backwards, or in reverse order.”

Greg gave an example using his Ho-Chunk name, which means “Bear claws on tree trunk,” in Ho-Chunk. “In English, you would say something like ‘the tree trunk has bear claws on it,’” Greg explained.

While the language is rarely used anymore, and as fluent speakers wane, Greg still has hope for a younger generation. While serving as part of the Ho-Chunk Nation Legislature for 12 years, he was involved with maintaining the Ho-Chunk language.

“The Ho-Chunk language is not dying, but it needs resurrection,” Greg said. “That’s why we always fund the language program.”

Within the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, at the headquarters in Black River Falls, there are after-school programs that teach not only the language but the Ho-Chunk culture.

“We have teachers and tutors,” Greg proudly stated. “We bring in singers and drummers to teach the children, to make sure they have the opportunity to know their culture.”


Howard, along with seven other code talkers, was posthumously recognized with a silver medal by the Ho-Chunk Nation this past December in Baraboo, Wis. Prior to that, the Ho-Chunk code talkers, along with 32 additional tribes throughout the United States, were honored with a Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in Washington D.C.

“You know, the whole family was so proud of that,” Greg said of the event. “We must have had 25 of my relatives go to D.C. for that. Only 10 were admitted, but 25 had signed up to go because they are so proud of their heritage.”

At the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, congressional leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, spoke about the heroics involved with code talking during the war.

“Why would Native Americans, who had been robbed of their land and their culture, agree to use their precious language to protect the country that had neglected and abused them for centuries?” Senator Reid mused. “As one of the Navajo Native American code talkers by the name of Chester Nez put it, ‘Somebody has got to defend this country; somebody has got to defend freedom.’” 


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