Last month, I was reading the book The First Code Talkers: Native American Communications in World War I by William C. Meadows ( The University of Oklahoma Press).
I was surprised when I first heard of this book, because I thought Indian Code Talkers were only a development that occurred during World War II. A few years back, I read a book recounting the experiences of the Navajo who were operating radios in the Pacific Campaigns. Their bravery and accomplishments were left largely unnoticed and unappreciated for many years.
But history is so multilayered and broad and deep. So, code talkers, using the Native American languages were used during the first World War. Meadows’s book was an eye-opener, filled with innumerable accounts of men of different tribes who willingly, bravely, and honorably served in the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
Several stories contained in the book stood out.
Some Native American tribes, who thought of themselves rightly so as nations, joined with the United States in declaring war on Germany. They did it as a treaty obligation. Their loyalty to treaties was a testimony that is painful in contrast to that of the ruling U. S. nation.
Another story is that of Otis Leader, a Choctaw from Oklahoma. Leader was working for two Swiss gentlemen who owned a cattle ranch. The three of them went to Fort Worth, Texas on a cattle buying trip. Along with the two Swiss men’s accents, Leader himself was a tall, dark, and presumably foreign looking man. The three were suspected of being German agents. This was prior to America’s entry into the war, and it was following the Zimmerman Note affair. So, one might think that these two guys with funny accents could have been Germans and Leader himself was thought to be possibly Mexican or Spanish. The newspapers reported these “shady characters” being seen in Fort Worth.
When they were finally confronted by authorities and cleared of all suspicions, Leader was furious. He had been the victim of profiling! His response: He immediately signed up and joined the military to prove that he was all American! Leader became one of the best known and highly honored Indian soldiers in the war.
Concerning the willingness to fight, Meadows states, “The overall Native response to World War I produced high levels of voluntary enlistment, patriotism, and tribal and national devotion….This was significant because at the time of World War I, nearly one-third of all Native Americans lacked U. S. citizenship and the constitutional rights for which they were willing or drafted to fight for. “
One thing I enjoyed thinking about was the tendency of white Americans to assume that Indians had natural scouting and fighting skills. While Meadows points out that this was a stereotyping of them, I find it to be one of the most positive stereotypes. I don’t have Native American heritage, but I would pleased with people assuming that I had natural scouting, hunting, and fighting skills.
The degree of patriotism found among the Indians was and continues to be astounding. It is not as though they have been given favorable treatment throughout U. S. history. The nation that forced itself upon their nations has been loyally served.
The First Code Talkers is an amazing account and a compendium of research on the contributions of Native Americans to the American war effort. Meadows has gathered sources, details, anecdotes, family recollections, and varied accounts to piece together the story of these soldiers. With all of the useful, informative, and enjoyable content, this book is a not an easy read or a flowing narrative. This book is research. In it, one account or reference is compared or supported by other sources. The details and repetitions are many.
All the time that I was reading it, I was thinking that what was really needed was someone taking all of this information and then telling the story of the Native American Code Talkers.
I posted some quotes and comments about this book recently on Facebook. Specifically, I asked my friend and Oklahoma historian John J. Dwyer about Otis Leader and Joseph Oklahombi.. John’s second volume of Oklahoma history will be coming out soon. Well, of course, John was familiar with these two heroes. But he also connected me with an Oklahoma novelist named Karen Elizabeth Sawyer.
Sarah is an author, speaker, and Choctaw storyteller. She graciously sent me a copy of Anumpa Warrior, published by Rock Haven Publishing.
This is simply my kind of novel. I patiently read some of the Christian fantasy in the Tolkien/Lewis vein that many of my friends write (and, yes, Remy Wilkins, your book was good). I more happily read more realistic and gutsy Southern fiction as written by Taylor Brown and Bret Lott, who write the kind of things that a Faulkner reader like myself likes. And I love C. J. Box’s novels.
But Anumpa Warrior is a delightful read. There is enough Indian heritage in it to supplement my love for James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. There is lots of history in the book, which include historical events and some actual people from history. And like the novels of Douglas Bond and John Dwyer, Sarah Elizabeth Sawyer’s stories are Christian. It isn’t soapy, sudsy Christianity, but the Faith is there, in big doses.
What was most enjoyable about this book is that it took some of the actual people from Meadows’s work (and Dr. Meadows and Sarah are well acquainted with each other’s labors) and added a few fictional characters in order to tell the story of how Choctaw Indians and members of other tribes were discovered in World War I.
The Germans were able to tap into the communication lines. Plan a move, locate a gun, and prepare an operation, and then German artillery would let loose at the very times and places that were critical. But there were languages that officers overhead coming from their crack troops with Indian heritage. These men then became the relayers of messages and information. Germans, who feared Indians based on the fictional accounts they had read, were now being outsmarted by these same people.
In some cases, as recounted by both Meadows and Sawyer, there were no Choctaw or other Indian language words for particular things in World War I. So they came up with words to fit, such as their words for “bad air” for poison gas and “scalps” for casualties.
As these measures were being implemented, World War I was winding down. This was the point where the American presence was being most fully felt. A Tennessean by the name of Alvin York won fame for his killing and capturing a large bevy of German soldiers. But several of the Oklahoma Native Americans were achieving equal results. This included the Leader and Oklahombi. On the one hand, the German army was withering and folding in on itself, but, on the other hand, like a wounded animal, it was still formidable. These Native American fighters, along with the rest of the AEF, did some brutal fighting to win that war.
If you are a serious student of either World War I or Native American history, Meadows’s book, The First Code Talkers, will be a welcome addition to your library or reading. But if you want a good story told well, if you want an historical novel with Christian content for yourself or your children, read Anumpa Warriors.
Yakoke Anumpa Warriors (Language Warriors]. Yakoke Dr. Meadows and Sarah Elizabeth Sawyer. Chihowa be praised for the stories the soldiers made and those who are sharing these stories today.
Post script: Yakoke means Thanks and Chihowah is the Choctaw word for God.
Also, I am never sure or comfortable with whether I should use the term Indians or the term Native Americans. In respect to those of such heritage, I will gladly work to avoid any offense. And it is difficult to always know what is best, especially if we remember just how many tribes and nations of Indians/Native Americans that there were and are.