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The Cree Code Talkers of the Second World War

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


There is no doubt that there are complicated relations between the Canadian state and many Indigenous people. The persisting ravages of colonialism affect so many of us in such far-reaching ways. It makes one wonder how thousands of Indigenous soldiers fought for the country that brought them such strife.


This week on the blog, leading up to Remembrance Day, we are considering the complexities between armed conflict and Indigenous peoples. Today, we look at the first-hand involvement of Cree-speaking Indigenous men in the Second World War.


The Cree Code Talkers were a national secret until about 2003, when Charles “Checker” Tompkins was interviewed by the Smithsonian and revealed the secret he had been holding for decades. Tompkins, along with dozens of other Cree men, were part of “an elite unit tasked with developing a coded system based on the Cree language for disguising military intelligence.”[1]


Tompkins, along with the other Cree speakers, were given the important task of translating thousands of messages related to troop movement and aircraft positioning into the Cree language. The Cree messages would then be sent to England, where another Cree Code Talker would translate the message back into English to be relayed to the military commanders. As these messages were being transmitted, they were immune to German interception, as the Germans were unable to decipher the Cree language.[2]


It has been said that the efforts by Tompkins and other Cree Code Talkers were instrumental in the Allies’ victory, though a large number of them remain unidentified. This is partly due to the fact that this was a very secret mission and because uncovering the identities of the Cree Code Talkers has not been prioritized.[3] Although Tompkin’s story has gained some notoriety since 2003, there are still so many Code Talkers that have not been identified. I think that an important part of reconciliation is taking the time to recognize Indigenous soldiers, including the Cree Code Talkers, and honouring their memory and their sacrifice for a country that has not always supported them.


Unfortunately, the Cree Code Talkers are not the only Indigenous veterans that are lacking the recognition that they so deserve. Indigenous veterans and their families continue to push for the government to recognize and to honour the Indigenous veterans that have served this country. Although steps have been taken, there is still work to do to ensure this important piece toward reconciliation is achieved.[4]



Charles 'Checker' Tompkins- Photo Credit: https://www.lookoutnewspaper.com/indigenous-languages-used-code-second-world-war/

“Although we’ve done the job as Cree Indians, that part doesn’t matter. I’ve done what I was asked and that’s good enough.”- Charles ‘Checker’ Tompkins. [5]


In 2016, Indigenous filmmakers, Alexandra Lazarowich and Cowboy Smithx, created a short documentary about the Cree Code Talkers and their contribution to the war efforts. Find the 13 minute documentary here: https://nsifilms.ca/cree-code-talker/


Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG






[1] Peter Scott, “Cree Code Talkers” (16 July 2018), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cree-code-talkers#:~:text=Cree%20code%20talkers%20were%20an,during%20the%20Second%20World%20War.>. [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Kristy Kirkup, “The road to recognition has been long and hard for Indigenous veterans” (7 November 2021), online: The Globe and Mail <www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-the-long-road-to-recognition-indigenous-veterans-to-be-honoured-on/>. [5] Alex Lazarowich and Cowboy Smithx, “Cree Code Talker”(2016) at 00h:11m:22s, online (video): NSI Films <nsifilms.ca/cree-code-talker/>.


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