New York State Funeral Directors Association

Two Native Americans sang Mohawk farewell songs while drumming, as the roar of U.S. Military helicopters split the air overhead.

Unique as the man it remembered, the funeral for Louis Levi Oakes in early June was a multi-faceted project and an honor for Funeral Director Chad Green.

More than one language, multiple religions and discussion with a foreign government and its military may sound like a lot of work to organize a celebration of someone’s life.

Unless it’s for a World War II veteran who represented the last of a special group in his generation.

The funeral for famed Mohawk Louis Levi Oakes, a WWII veteran and the last surviving “Mohawk Code Talker,” was the proud culmination of a busy few days for Green and his staff from the Donaldson Funeral Home in Massena.

Situated in Northern New York not far from the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation that straddles the U.S. and Canada border, the funeral home serves members of the Native American community often, Green said.

But the funeral for this man, whose language was used as a code that couldn’t be cracked by the enemy, was anything but typical.

Oakes, 94, enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 18. He served as a Technician Fifth Grade with Company B of the 442nd Signal Battalion.

He served in the South Pacific, the Philippines and New Guinea before his honorable discharge in February of 1946.

Oakes and members of 33 Native American tribes were welcomed by the U.S. military for their ability to speak language unheard anywhere else.

They were able to communicate back and forth without the enemy being able to translate what they were saying.

In a prepared statement, Lt. Col. John P. Miller III, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, said Oakes’ “contribution to the success of our allied forces during World War II is immeasurable.”

“He saved lives and secured a safer world for all of us,” Miller said.

The work of the Code Talkers was kept secret for decades and many died before the U.S. government made a formal effort to recognize them.

Two dozen Mohawks from Akwesasne were recognized with congressional medals in 2016. For most of them, family members stood in to receive the awards.

But Oakes survived to receive those honors.June 1, 2019 - Honor Guard members fold the American Flag during funeral services for Louis Levi Oakes, the last of the World War II Mohawk Code Talkers. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Keegan Costello.

“He was one of the few that were honored in life and then again in death,” said Green, who has served members of the Mohawk Native American community in Northern New York for 20 years.

Green is accustomed to witnessing unique Mohawk funeral practices.

Often, the Mohawks will handcraft a casket or cradle boards for a loved one. They dress the deceased following the embalming process, he said.

Oakes, who was Catholic, is expected to receive a headstone, along with his government issued headstone.

Other Native Americans are buried without a headstone at all – there is the belief that these hinder the spirit’s course of departure, Green said.

Viewings are frequently held at the deceased or family member’s home on the Akwesasne Territory.

For Oakes, there was a 2-day wake held in a community meeting house on the Akwesasne territory.

On the third day he and his family were escorted to the small Catholic Church by over 50 motorcycles through a Fire and EMS Honor Parade, with a massive United States Flag flown on the main highway on the New York side of the community.

Community members stood along the route holding flags or saluting their fallen hero.

Hundreds attended the interment and funeral ceremony, Green said, which involved military personnel from the U.S. and Canada and included funerary rituals of both Native Americans and the U.S. military.

The Native American song and drumming is a tradition believed to help “set the spirit free,” Green said.

In addition to a 21-gun salute, the U.S. Army conducted a military helicopter flyover at St. Lawrence Cemetery – three Blackhawk and two Chinook helicopters thundered across the sky.

Getting permission from the Canadian military entailed contacting officials in Canada then the Canadian military, Green said.

Though it’s considered its own nation, the Mohawk community of Akwesasne is situated, geographically, in Quebec, Ontario, and in New York, making activity there an international affair.

The Canadian Defense Ministry allowed the helicopter flyover – pilots flew along the St. Lawrence River valley to make their fly-over at the cemetery, Green said.

According to an account by Leslie Logan in the Indian Country Today newspaper, others involved in honoring Oakes included hundreds of motorcyclists in a funeral procession.

They included the American Legion Legacy Riders, the Patriot Guard Riders, the Christian Motorcyclist Association and the Freedom Riders Motorcycle Club.

“It was a very, very emotional graveside service,” Green said.

“I have been the director for many military services in my 20 years, all of which are an honor, but this one stands out a bit more.”


 

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