Canadian Cree Were The First Native “Code Talkers” in WWII

This video is about one Charles “Checker” Tomkins, a Cree Indian from Alberta, Canada. His story is told here in this video, both by his brothers and by this footage from the Smithsonian Institute film library. As I understand this video, these Canadian Cree were the first Indians to be used as “Code Talkers” in WWII.

When the war broke out, people were still suffering the effects of the Great Depression. There were no jobs for Cree young men, or others for that matter. They were eager to join the military if only for the steady income and “3 squares a day.” 

Native code talkers were a critical resource for the Allies during WWII.
Native code talkers were a critical resource for the Allies during WWII.

Checker Tomkins and his brother signed up for the Canadian military and within six months they were sent overseas to Europe. When they arrived there, a notice went out calling for any Indians who spoke their native languages. Checker answered that call and when he arrived at the announced location he found himself among some 600 Indians. They were divided into their individual language groups and given messages to be translated into their languages. The Cree People’s translations came out as the best and most effective. That’s how he became a “Code Talker”

The Cree language, like all the other Indian languages, did not have vocabulary for a lot of the jargon and weapon technologies of the modern military, so they had to use what they had. They found creative ways of using words and concepts in their own language to describe those modern technologies and incorporated those terms into their Code Talking. A Cree would get orders in English, translate them into Cree then send the message to another Cree Code Talker, who would then translate the message back into English. The Germans had no clue as to what this was or how to “break” it.  

The Japanese were unable to break the "code," which was the language of Native American tribes.
The Japanese were unable to break the “code,” which was the language of Native American tribes.

But here is the interesting part; Tomkins and the other Cree Code Talkers did not go to Europe with Canadian forces, they were attached to the U.S. Army Air Force. They proved to be very effective. The Americans saw this and decided to, in Tomkins’ own words, “to use their own Indians.” Hence, the formation of our own Navajo Code Talkers (and many other tribal Code Talkers) who worked so closely and effectively with the United States Marines in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese. [I will have more about these other Code Talkers in other articles].   

As a result of the Americans turning to Native American Peoples, the Canadian Cree Code Talkers were transferred to front line Canadian troops in the European theater. They would fight the war that way until the end of WWII. They would come home to Canada and simply go on with their lives. Like our own Navajo and other Native American Code Talkers, the Tompkins and his fellow Cree were sworn to secrecy about what they did for the military for the rest of their lives. And they honored that oath of secrecy. Checker Tompkins’ brothers did not even know what he had done until shortly before their brother “Checker” died.

Many code talkers have taken the secrets of their service to the grave.
Many code talkers have taken the secrets of their service to the grave.

You will hear the voice of Checker Tompkins at the beginning and the end of this very interesting video. What he says is a life lesson for all of us. Charles “Checker” Tomkins was a humble man, a man of his people, not famous, just a simple person like most of us. In his own simple words he gives us all something to think about. 

Tompkins tells us at the beginning of the video, that he loves his country and did what it asked of him. At the end he says very simply, “I done what I was asked, that’s good enough.” In those few words he reveals the calling we are all challenged to take up.  We are not here just for ourselves.  We find our highest meaning in this life in serving others. That is what Charles “Checker” Tomkins did in his own small, unique way.  But that “small and unique” way had an oversized positive effect in the winning of WWII. He was not lifted up to high rank; his name was not written in the history books. He went home he went back to the anonymous life of First Nations/Native American Peoples on both sides of the border. He married, raised a family and was loved by those who knew him and “that was good enough.”  Amen to that.

We send our respect and our eternal gratitude to the memory of Charles “Checker” Tomkins and to all of the First Nations/Native American warrior who served as Code Talkers during WWII. 

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