Cree Code Talk­ers

Coded mes­sages based on the Cree lan­guage made it dif­fi­cult for the en­emy to mon­i­tor and de­ci­pher Al­lied trans­mis­sions dur­ing the Sec­ond World War

Our Canada - - Features - By Shirley An­der­son, Grouard, Alta.

Dur­ing World War II, Al­lied forces baf­fled the en­emy with coded mes­sages based on the Cree lan­guage.

My un­cle Charles “Checker” Tomkins was a very hum­ble, proud, hu­mor­ous Métis man, who later in life be­came a mem­ber of the Pound­maker’s Re­serve in Saskatchew­an. In 2003, just two months be­fore Un­cle Charles’ death at the age of 85, Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tives Tim Jones and Kevin Lewis came to Cal­gary to in­ter­view him about the Cree Code Talk­ers pro­gram he was part of dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. The first thing Tim asked my un­cle was, “How would you de­scribe your­self?” With­out miss­ing a beat my un­cle said, “I am a nice-looking man!”

Charles was born Jan­uary 8, 1918, in the vil­lage of Grouard in north­ern Al­berta, to Peter and Is­abelle Tomkins. He was one of eight chil­dren and four stepchil­dren. His grand­par­ents were Peter and Marie Tomkins. He mar­ried Lena An­der­son in 1940 and joined the army soon af­ter­wards.

My un­cle spoke flu­ent Cree and cred­its his grand­par­ents for teach­ing him the lan­guage. His grand­mother was Cree and his grand­fa­ther was Cau­casian, but also spoke flu­ent Cree. His grand- fa­ther taught him how to say things in Cree that were not ac­tu­ally part of the lan­guage at the time—modern ref­er­ences such as air­plane or train, for ex­am­ple. The “Cree” be­ing spo­ken back then was usu­ally a blend of English, French and Cree, but, ac­cord­ing to Un­cle Charles, the ver­sion his grand­par­ents spoke made more sense than that of any other Cree speak­ers he knew.

The army sent Un­cle Charles over­seas in 1940 and he said the voy­age was hor­rific. There were more than 800 sol­diers on board the ship, and they were fed salt her­ring and plain beets ev­ery day! Charles said he slept in a ham­mock and had a heck of

a time get­ting into it each night!

When he got to London, he was called to the Cana­dian mil­i­tary head­quar­ters— he had no idea why, nor did his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer. When he got to the head­quar­ters, he saw many other “In­di­ans” of dif­fer­ent tribes. Charles was then paired off with an­other Cree sol­dier from Saskatchew­an and they were put in dif­fer­ent rooms with a phone. They were then given dif­fer­ent things to trans­late. It sounds like Charles played a piv­otal role in how the code was de­vel­oped.

He was as­signed to the Amer­i­can Eighth Air Force and the Ninth Bomber Com­mand in Eng­land, and was asked about other Crees he might know sta­tioned over­seas. He named six oth­ers, all from Al­berta. They were brought to­gether for about a week, and he showed the oth­ers how to use Cree ter­mi­nol­ogy for var­i­ous an­i­mals and birds as code words. So, for ex­am­ple, when they talked about the B17 bomber, they said, “amo tepakoh­posâp” (“bee” and “17” in Cree). A Spit­fire air­craft be­came “iskotew” (“fire” in Cree) and the Mus­tang trans­lated into “pak­watas­tim” (“wild horse” in Cree). To in­di­cate how many air­craft were seen, they would in­clude the ap­pro­pri­ate num­ber in Cree: “Nîs­tanaw amo tepakoh­posâp pâskisikan­a” (20 B17 bombers spot­ted).

When the war ended he came home and met his brother in Ed­mon­ton, who was 17 and in full uni­form, ea­ger to ship out. Charles was so happy that the war was over. He said no one should ever have to go to war—it is a hor­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence.

My un­cle was not too happy about his dis­charge; he said all he got was $100 to buy civil­ian clothes, a trans­port war­rant and a hand­shake. He said that he was not told about any land he may have been en­ti­tled to as a re­ward for his ser­vice, but thinks that of­fer was only for First Na­tions sol­diers. He re-joined the army after the war be­cause there was no other work to be found, and was posted to Cal­gary. He also told us that no mat­ter what an “In­dian” sol­dier did, some­how he was over­looked for pro­mo­tions. It was only after years of work­ing for the army that he was made a cor­po­ral. Alex Lazarowich, a doc­u­men­tary film pro­ducer, and di­rec­tor Cow­boy Smithx made a doc­u­men­tary about Cree Code Talk­ers, which has since won sev­eral awards. It is vi­tally im­por­tant to keep our Cree lan­guage alive and to make sure that we keep teach­ing it in the schools; the doc­u­men­tary em­pha­sizes the role the lan­guage played in win­ning the Sec­ond World War. n

Clock­wise from above: Charles (top row, fifth from right) with fel­low mem­bers of the Princess Pa­tri­cia unit ; Charles, at 83, in May 2003; Charles when he first en­listed in 1940.

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