Governor Evers signs bill designating ‘Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers Memorial Highway’

By Ardith Van Riper

On March 25, Governor Tony Evers signed Senate Bill 633, now 2023 Wisconsin Act 216, designating the “Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers Memorial Highway” at a bill signing ceremony at the House of Wellness near Baraboo, Wisconsin.

The bill designates a stretch of Interstate 90 that spans from the Minnesota-Wisconsin State line in La Crosse to the intersection of I-90 and I-94 in Monroe County.  This corridor has the most significant number of Ho-Chunk Members near it, in addition to being part of the Nation’s ancestral homelands.

The Ho-Chunk Nation officially has 14 World War II Veterans listed with the Department of Defense as Code Talkers. Code Talkers were American soldiers who used native languages to communicate secretly during wartime.  The term is now usually associated with the United States soldiers during the world wars who used their knowledge of Native American languages as a basis to transmit coded messages that were indecipherable to enemy forces.

The conception of the Act began in 2012 when Sandy Winneshiek started her tour as the Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Veterans Service Officer.  “I found a file dating back to 1995.  The file contained the names of seven World War II Ho-Chunk Veterans which had a note attached that said ‘Possible Code Talkers.’ Since the file was still open, I made contact with the Department of Defense to submit the list of seven veterans to be approved as Code Talkers.”

The following Veterans were approved in 2013 as Code Talkers: Bill Whitebear, U.S. Army; Benjamin Winneshiek, U.S. Army; Bill Mike, U.S. Army; Jesse Mike, U.S. Army; Clifford Blackdeer, U.S. Army; Emanuel Thundercloud, U.S. Army; and Howard Littlejohn, U.S. Army.

The Ho-Chunk Nation received a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of the Code Talkers at a ceremony held in Washington D.C. on November 20, 2012.  At that time, the Ho-Chunk Nation President Jon Greendeer, Vice President Heather Cloud, Executive Director of Heritage Preservation Robert Mann, Division of Veterans Affairs Director Sandy Winneshiek, and family and friends attended the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building.

Sandy Winneshiek continued her research and submitted a second list to the Department of Defense in July 2013 to be approved as Code Talkers.  The approval process would take two and a half years because the Department of Defense required documentation to prove these veterans were in the South Pacific at the time. 

“Much thanks to Andy Thundercloud and Elena Blackdeer-Greendeer,” stated Sandy Winneshiek because those two provided much of the documentation.

On December 13, 2013, the Ho-Chunk Nation Division of Veteran Affairs posthumously honored the seven Ho-Chunk Nation Code Talkers with a private ceremony at the Ho-Chunk Convention Center in Baraboo.  Ho-Chunk Nation tribal elder Andrew Thundercloud composed a Code Talker song for the occasion.  The song was debuted during the ceremony.

On March 15, 2016, Sandy Winneshiek received notification from the U.S. Army that the Secretary of Defense had signed a memorandum awarding Code Talker recognition to the second list of seven veterans.  Those veterans included: Alvin Blackdeer, U.S. Navy; Donald Blackdeer, U.S. Army; Irvin Blackdeer, U.S. Army; George Green, KIA-U.S. Army; Donald Greengrass, U.S. Army; Adam Littlebear, Jr., KIA-U.S. Army; and Alfred O. Stacy, U.S. Army.

Every Native nation designed its medal imprint.  It is common to have the likeness of a veteran native on the front of the medal and the nation’s seal on the back.  Monty Green, Andrew Thundercloud, and Clayton Winneshiek helped design the Ho-Chunk Nation’s medal.

On April 7, 2017, the second seven Code Talkers from the Ho-Chunk Nation were honored with Congressional Silver Medals during a presentation ceremony at Ho-Chunk Gaming Wisconsin Dells to recognize their service in the United States Military during World War II.

Sandy Winneshiek began working with Senator Jeff Smith in April 2019.  They wanted a memorial dedicated to the 14 Code Talkers.  Winneshiek requested Donald Greengrass offer support while he was the Andrew Blackhawk Post 129 commander.

The Assembly Bill 678 was by Representatives VanderMeer, Considine, Kurtz, Allen, C, Anderson, Armstrong, Bare, Billings, Conley, Dallman, Dittrich, Doyle, Edming, Emerson, Joers, Krug, Magnafici, Maxey, Melotik, Moore Omokunde, Mursau, O’Connor, Ohnstad, Ortiz-Velez, Oldenburg, Penterman, Rozar, Spiros, Tittle and Chankland; cosponsored by Senators Testin, James, Smith, and Pfaff.                                                                                                                                   

Ho-Chunk Nation Representatives Kristin White Eagle and Shelby Visintin, along with Sandy Winneshiek and Donald Greengrass testified during the Assembly Public Hearing for the Committee on Transportation on January 30, 2024.

In part, their testimony included, “Native American soldiers from thirty-three tribes from across the country, including three from Wisconsin, served as Code Talkers during World War II.  To date, the Department of Defense has recognized and listed 14 World War II Veterans from the Ho-Chunk Nation who served as Code Talkers, marking the Ho-Chunk Nation and its members as one of the most recognized tribal nations for its Code Talkers.”

Additionally, their testimony said, “Preserving the legacy of the Code Talkers is crucial to honoring their service to the American people and to Nation, and their contributions towards preserving native language for future generations.  By designating that portion of I-90 as the Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers Memorial Highway, we are honoring their memory and service.”

The Wisconsin State Senate went on to approve the historic bill.

During the March 25 bill signing ceremony at the House of Wellness, a color guard ceremoniously brought in the flags.  The Thundercloud Singers rendered honor songs.  Then, the Traditional Chief Clayton Winneshiek offered opening words.  Following that, President Jon Greendeer and Vice President Karena Thundercloud were the speakers.

Gov. Evers said, “Over the last five years, we have been proud to work together with Indigenous communities and leaders to bolster Native language and cultural preservation efforts, and this has been critical to our ongoing work to strengthen our government-to-government relationships with the Native Nations.  Signing this bill today is a continuation of those efforts, and this designation will cement the incredible history of the Ho-Chunk Code Talkers in our collective narrative and highlight these individuals’ important contributions for folks, families, and visitors to learn about.” 

Senate Bill 633, now 2023 Wisconsin Act 216, “Lists the 14 Ho-Chunk Code Talkers that the federal Department of Defense has recognized, as well as specifically include ‘any other unidentified Ho-Chunk World War II Code Talkers’.”

The Thundercloud Singers sang the Ho-Chunk Code Talker song after Gov. Evers signed the bill.  Sandy Winneshiek’s family gifted Jon Thundercloud a blanket.  The event concluded with an honor song, followed by a traveling song.