Melissa Youngbear was hurt and disappointed when she walked away empty-handed from a ceremony authorized by Congress to honor her father and seven other Meskwaki men trained to use their native language to provide secure battlefield communication during World War II.
Being told Tuesday she finally will receive her father’s silver medal at a New Year’s Eve powwow at the Meskwaki casino west of Tama didn’t do much to lift her spirits.
“I’ll feel good when we get the medals,” Youngbear said.
When she learned of the New Year's Eve powwow, she had been telling reporters meeting with her at the Meskwaki settlement about the way her tribal council had handled a Congressional Gold Medal presentation and distribution of the silver medals struck by the U.S. Mint. That official ceremony was held Nov. 20 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The council has not responded to requests for comment on its decision to have the silver medals shipped directly to the settlement rather than have them presented to the sons, daughters and other descendants of the code talkers at the November ceremony.
If anything, the impromptu announcement of the Dec. 31 powwow only reinforced her resentment.
“It’s taken the glory from our dads,” said Youngbear, the daughter of Mike Wayne Wabaunasee, a code talker who died in 2001.
Theresa Mahoney, whose great-uncle, Edward Benson, was a code talker, shared the disappointment.
“Part of the excitement of going (to the ceremony) was the recognition they would receive, the recognition that comes with getting the medals presented to you and shaking someone’s hand and someone saying ‘congratulations,’” Mahoney said. “It was disappointing that was taken away from some family members.”
Daniel Wabaunasee, whose father, Judie Wayne Wabaunasee, also was a code talker, doesn’t understand why the Meskwaki tribe flew him from Hawaii to Washington for the ceremony.
“Why did we even come? Why did we make the trip if the tribe was going to keep the medals for themselves?” Wabaunasee said. “Why did they waste all that money to have us come over?"
A Marine Corps veteran who has been an ironworker for 27 years, Wabaunasee believes the medals “were basically stolen from us.”
“This was my father, my cousin’s father, my friend’s father. But they took it upon themselves to steal these medals and not give them to who they were supposed to go to,” Wabaunasee said.
Like Wabaunasee, Youngbear, who served in the Army from 1978-85, felt betrayed by that decision.
“I felt like I was being used … that I was there for their glory,” she said of the tribal council.
Lavern Jefferson understands there are hard feelings.
“I’m trying to make it right with the families,” said Jefferson, the commander of the American Legion Robert Morgan Post 701 near the Meskwaki settlement.
Instead of talking to the media about her disappointment and frustration, Jefferson advised Youngbear to “move forward.”
Jefferson has been getting an earful from the code talkers’ families and other community members.
“But there’s no reason for all of this,” he said. “We don’t need any of this bad-mouthing, saying bad stuff about the community. We don’t need that.
"Certain people need to be told, but you don’t need to tell the whole world.”
“This wouldn’t have happened if they had said something before,” Youngbear told him.
Mahoney, an associate judge of the Meskwaki tribal court, agreed it would have been better if she and other family members had known of the council’s plans.
“It’s not for me to second-guess,” she said. “But I saw the disappointment on the faces of those who traveled there.”
She’s optimistic that it will get worked out.“It’s part of the fun of being part of a tribe,” Mahoney said.