‘He was a hero’: Levi Oakes, WWII’s last surviving Mohawk Code Talker dies at 94

The last surviving Mohawk code talker from World War Two entered the spirit world Tuesday night.

Louis Levi Oakes, an Elder revered in his community of Akwesasne, passed away at 94 years old – but is remembered by his peers as both a military hero, and a family man.

“When he was able to do his speaking engagements – to see the rock star attitude that people had for Levi with his role, and being in the service – people just came out in droves to see him,” explained Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Chief Tim Thompson.

“He was your friendly neighbourhood person: always said hi, always had a smile on his face, always waved to you when he was driving around,” Thompson added. “He was that person, just your friendly neighbourhood neighbour, with a smile always on his face.”

Oakes was born in Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that straddles the Quebec, Ontario, and New York borders.

At 18, he enlisted in the United States Army and served for six years as a technician with Company B’s 442nd Signal Battalion.

While stationed in Louisiana, Oakes received code talker training alongside other Indigenous servicemen.

The Mohawk language of Kanien’keha was one of 33 indigenous languages used to send encoded messages between allied forces during the war.

Oakes would eventually use this training in locations around the world, including the South Pacific, New Guinea, and the Philippines.

“By sending messages in his own language that couldn’t be understood by the enemy, Levi saved untold lives,” Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan wrote on Twitter. “Mr. Oakes’ loss will be deeply felt, but he will never be forgotten.”

He was awarded the Silver Star – the U.S. Army’s third highest honour – as well as the Congressional Medal of Honour for his efforts before receiving an honourable discharge in 1946.

“He was a hero,” wrote Marc Miller, Parliamentary Secretary for Crown Indigenous Relations, at the end of a tribute post written mostly in Kanien’keha.

After the war, Oakes went on to a three decades-long career in ironworking, and later worked for Akwesasne’s roads department.

For many years, he didn’t discuss his wartime responsibilities. It’s believed by friends and family that Oakes was committed to secrecy in case he was ever needed to serve in another war.

In 2018, Oakes was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations and the House of Commons for remarkable dedication and service during World War II.

In the wake of his passing, Oakes is remembered by the Mohawk Council as a man who “utilized his language unselfishly to preserve the freedoms bestowed upon us today.”

He was the first individual to sign the council’s book of recognition, ‘Ionkwakwe’:nion,’ or ‘We accomplished it’ – which applauds the contributions made by Akwesasne Mohawks,

And even though Oakes is gone, his legacy – and his language – are alive and well in his home community.

“It’s an important language – it’s a dying language – but the rebirth of the language in our community is becoming very strong,” Thompson added.

Flags outside the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne will be flown at half-mast until Oakes’ funeral on Saturday, June 1.

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.