It was the height of World War II, and battles were raging across islands in the South Pacific Ocean.
The United States forces had many assets to combat the enemy. One was a scout from the Puget Sound region.
The Army private would leave base for days at a time, sneaking through an island wilderness.
The scout was good at his job. So was his brother, who waited next to a radio back at camp for any word about enemy movements.
The scout observed details of the Japanese forces, grabbed a radio, and signaled his brother with the information. The radio lines were open. The enemy could hear everything they said. But it didn’t do them much good. The brothers, Manual and Bowser Alfred, were Suquamish tribal members, and they were speaking in Lushootseed.
“Manual would go out and scout the Japanese camps, for days at a time,” said Suquamish Elder Peg Deam, who recalls the story of the two brothers.
Deam’s brother was a newspaper delivery boy years ago. The Alfred brothers were on his route. He grew up listening to their war stories, and in turn, so did she.
“(Manual) came back with information about many camps; how many Japanese soldiers, what they were doing, how many tanks, their coordinates, etcetera,” Deam said. “These detailed reports were used to aim large guns from the U.S. camps. Manual would go out to each Japanese camp, again, to make sure they had not moved. This time he would radio back to his brother, Bowser, and in the Suquamish language to report each camp’s update.”
Manual scouted; leaving his gun behind, embarking on missions with only a knife, Deam said.
The brothers’ native language was quite an asset. It was a system of communication that the enemy had no experience with, and therefore could not decipher. It also came in handy for the Alfred brothers.
“Manual did not like his commanding officer and when he radioed back to his camp, talking with his brother, Bowser, they would exchange inappropriate conversations concerning this officer, as he was standing there,” Deam said. “Listening and not understanding that he was the butt of their jokes.”
What the Alfred brothers did was not uncommon during the war. In fact, it was done often in both World War I and World War II as part of a much larger story; a story that is told through a Smithsonian exhibit, “Native Words, Native Warriors.”
The exhibit comes to the Suquamish Museum on April 27, as part of a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit. It will be featured in Suquamish through July 6. Military members and veterans will have free admission to the museum on the exhibit’s opening day. Active duty members can get discounted admission during its stay at the Suquamish Museum.
“Native Words, Native Warriors is considered one of the best Native American traveling exhibits right now,” said Suquamish Museum Director Janet Smoak.
“It is an exhibit that was put together by the National Native American Museum, which is a part of the Smithsonian Institution,” Smoak said. “It tries to tell the story, and does a really good job, of Native American participation in World War I and World War II, and the use of their indigenous languages. So if they were Navajo they used Navajo, if they were Suquamish they used Lushootseed, in communication in the field.”
Realizing the value of native languages — which the enemy had little if any access to — the U.S. military used native speakers to communicate over radios during the wars.
“Everyone had the same radio, and everyone was on the same frequency,” Smoak said. “So if you wanted to hide what you were doing, or obscure what you were doing, from the enemy, they used their indigenous languages.”
“There was also a formal program in WWI that the United States Army conducted which was codenamed ‘code talker’ that was primarily Navajos and Apaches,” she added. “That was primarily used in the air war. But almost anywhere you had more than one native speaker in a unit, they would use their language.”
The Native Words, Native Warriors exhibit highlights the code talker program, and the native language feature of the wars, through texts and pictures. The museum will also feature a variety of lectures and documentaries in conjunction with the exhibit. The museum’s calendar will have a full list of events.
The exhibit fits nicely with the standing features already at the museum.
“Right now we already have medals in our leadership case which is in our main exhibit,” Smoak said, further noting that military service is something that the Suquamish people know about, rather well.
“The Suquamish have a strong warrior tradition,” Smoak said. “Fighting for your people, and keeping your people safe was an extremely important task for everyone, men in particular.”
“If you look at the Suquamish, they have men and women veterans,” she said. “It’s part of honoring that tradition, and it’s a good career. A lot of people go into it for that reason, as well. Here locally, there has always been a very strong family tradition (of military service).”
Smoak notes that, per capita, Native Americans have historically volunteered for military service in higher numbers than any other ethnicity in the nation.
“So here in Suquamish, and Indian country in general, having an exhibit based on the history of the military is extremely popular,” she said.
The Suquamish Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Its calendar and other information can be found online at www.suquamishmuseum.org.