WASHINGTON (AFP) - Native American "code talkers" who used their indigenous languages to keep critical military secrets from World War II enemies are finally getting their due in Congress, decades after their heroism.
Twenty-four years ago France bestowed its highest civilian honor on American Indians who used their ancestral words as shields, forging an unbreakable code to communicate troops movements and enemy positions that the German and Japanese failed to crack.
On Wednesday, top US lawmakers will do the same, presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to some 250 Native American code talkers and their relatives.
"This is long overdue," Mr Wallace Coffey, chairman of the Comanche Nation, told AFP this week. With dozens of his compatriots, Mr Coffey traveled to Washington from the central state of Oklahoma to receive the medal on behalf of World War II's 17 Comanche code talkers, known in their native tongue as "Numurekwa'etuu."
American Indians from 33 tribes will be honored, most of them posthumously.
Mr Edmond Harjo of the Seminole tribe is still alive and will participate in the ceremony.
France paid tribute in 1989, when Pierre Messmer, Charles de Gaulle's former prime minister, traveled to Oklahoma to make members of the Choctaw and Comanche tribes Knights of the National Order of Merit.
By sending radio messages in their dialects, these soldiers foiled interceptions of the enemy on the European and Pacific fronts.
Some 400 Navajo soldiers, the group with the largest participation in World Wars I and II, received Congressional Gold Medals in 2000, but those from other tribes had to wait until 2008 for Congress to allocate the same award, and their ceremony taking place Wednesday.
"The government has been very slow to recognize anything of importance for American Indians, and that's one of the real resentments in the American Indian community today," said Mr Herman Viola, author of "Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism."