The results of World War I on Native peoples in the United States were profound, as the war led to citizenship and, slowly, to a greater participation in constitutional rights. During World War I, Native troops contributed to victory as soldiers and support staff. The Native-language code talkers provided invaluable intelligence services.
When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Indigenous Americans were not yet citizens, but instead, they were wards of the state who required permission from their tribal government agents to travel, cash checks, purchase land, and other basic public activities. They could not be drafted. Nonetheless, American Indians and Alaskan Natives volunteered at a high rate for their population, almost ten percent. In 1910, the American Indian population was 265,683 Indians,[i] and at least 12,000 tribal members volunteered for military service (DOD),[ii] and participated as support staff, including women’s roles. More Native soldiers were not official members of federal tribes. Gerald Vizenor, the author of Blue Ravens and other books, estimates a total of about 25,000 Native soldiers.[iii]
The Native soldiers in World War I often came from U.S. government boarding schools. Boarding schools were military schools, with drills and regimentation for both genders. Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, was one of these training schools, and the war effort was paramount. The student newspaper reprinted this news item from a national newspaper in 1917:
Haskell Institute at Lawrence, Kans., has several hundred boys trained to fight, each fully uniformed, and every single one of them bright and alert, ready to fight for their native land if the President calls for them. There are also several hundred girls beautifully trained, and not only trained at drilling and marching, but in first aid, in domestic science, in laundering, in everything that makes for cleanliness and health in the home, or in the camp, wherever these bright girls maybe called to go. Haskell, to my notion, is the best Indian school in the country.” [iv]
My husband’s grandfather, Moon Weso, was at Haskell during that time and trained in the Indian Cavalry, which was preparing to ship to Europe, horses and all when the war ended. This was one of the last horse troops, as mechanized guns, airplanes, and other innovations made horses ineffective in battle.
Native language speakers contributed to winning the war by providing quick encryption of military strategy. Many Choctaw and Cherokee speakers were in the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division[v]. These were mostly Choctaw and Cherokee men, about 600 in number: “The 142nd saw action in France and its soldiers were widely recognized for their contributions in battle. Four men from this unit were awarded the Croix de Guerre, while others received the Church War Cross for gallantry.”[vi]
A group of nineteen Choctaws became code talkers in the autumn of 1918 when US troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. This was one of the largest frontline cohorts of American soldiers in WW1, but communications in the field were compromised. The Germans had successfully tapped telephone lines, were deciphering codes and repeatedly capturing runners sent out to deliver messages directly.[vii] In trench warfare, the timing of charges was important: “Each side would climb out of the trenches and charge across no man’s land toward the other side’s trenches, in the hope of breaking through and advancing into the other’s territory. Both sides used telephone lines and crude radios to alert troops of upcoming charges. Enemy telephones were tapped, and radio messages intercepted.”[viii] During a crisis in the battle, an officer heard two Choctaw enlisted men from the 142nd speaking their language:
He then asked if there were other speakers among the troops. The men knew of Choctaw soldiers at company headquarters. Using a field telephone, the captain got the men to deliver a message in their native tongue which their colleagues quickly translated back into English. The Choctaw Telephone Squad was born and so was code talking.
This was October 17, 1918. The government further documents, “Because the language used by the Choctaw code talkers in the transmission of information was not based on a European language or on a mathematical progression, the Germans were unable to understand any of the transmissions.[ix] The maneuver that October day was successful and the code talkers continued to be an essential asset for military success.
The full participation of men from Indigenous nations is almost impossible to document because this was classified, and documentation was sparse. During the 21st century, Choctaw men's relatives gathered what information they could, and a larger story is now known.[x]
Other tribes used as code talkers during World War I were: Assiniboine, Cree, Crow, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Mississauga, Muscogee, Ojibwa, Oneida, Sac and Fox, and Sioux.[xi]
After the war, an advocate, Joseph K. Dixon[xii], wrote about the importance of Indigenous Americans’ contributions to World War I: “The Indian helped to free Belgium, helped to free all the small nations, helped to give victory to the Stars and Stripes. The Indian went to France to help avenge the ravages of autocracy. Now, shall we not redeem ourselves by redeeming all the tribes?” In 1924, the federal government passed the Indian Citizenship Act, also known as the Snyder Act. This was the beginning of fuller recognition of civil rights. World War I, then, was extremely important to Indigenous Americans as these former enemies, in many cases, became fully-vested citizens.
[i] Reported by the U.S. Census
[ii] Department of Defense (DOD) website and other government sources.
[iii] Vizenor, Gerald. Lecture, Birchbark Books. 12 Nov. 2014.
[iv] Washington National Tribune May 11, 1917.
[vii] Winterman, Denise. “World War One: The Original Code Talkers. BBC News Magazine 18 May 2014. Web.
[viii] Scribner, John. “Choctaw Indian Code Talkers of World War I.” Texas Military Forces Museum. Web. 11 November 2014.
[ix]Public Law, “Code Talker Recognition Act of 2008,” https://www.congress.gov/110/plaws/publ420/PLAW-110publ420.pdf
[xi] Public Law, 2008 Code talker recognition act.
[xii] Paul Rosier, Serving their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, 46.