You’ve probably heard of the famous Navajo Code Talkers of the Second World War, who contributed immeasurably to US intelligence by using their own language as an encryption tool. You may not, however, have heard of their predecessors: the Choctaw soldiers who distinguished themselves with coded transmissions in their native language in the First World War. This little slice of American history is fascinating, a little bit sad and shockingly obscure, so spread it around and make sure these brave men aren’t forgotten.
For Native Americans in the early 20th century, there was considerable pressure to speak English and join European-style society. Native children were seized by the tens of thousands and forced to attend boarding schools where the mantra was: “kill the Indian, save the man.” They were severely punished, including being denied food and being beaten, for speaking their native languages, and they were strongly urged to sever ties with their home communities, turning away from reservation life and becoming disconnected from their culture and their history.
In this context, young Indian men went to war alongside other men serving in the First World War, and as they found themselves in military encampments and communities, some reached out for a sense of home. According to legend, two Choctaw men were having a conversation in their native tongue when a white officer walked by, overheard them and wondered if he’d stumbled upon a solution to one of the most intractable problems of the First World War: no matter how quickly the Allies worked, the Germans were breaking their codes just as quickly.
During a war, hundreds of thousands of transmissions need to be sent to coordinate supplies, troop movements, military strategy and more. If even one is intercepted and understood by the enemy, it can have serious ramifications. With the Germans routinely reading US transmissions, it was difficult to coordinate and maintain a military advantage, but that changed when Native American soldiers took up the radio microphones and started chatting in their native languages, conveying messages in a code that was unbreakable simply by virtue of being in a totally unfamiliar language.
Because the Germans lacked Native American linguists on their side, they couldn’t move quickly enough to understand the language and break through the code, allowing the Americans to communicate securely even if the Germans were listening in. Meanwhile, because no machine coding was involved, just translation from Choctaw into English, messages could be passed very rapidly around the lines.
While their fellow Choctaw at home were isolated, punished for speaking their language and subjected to other indignities, the code talkers played a key role in many battles. When they returned to the United States, however, they largely sank into obscurity — they didn’t talk about their wartime experiences, and many of their own families didn’t know what they had done during the war.
It wasn’t until the early 21st century that the contributions of the code talkers were federally recognized, with the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008. While many of those honored by the event, along with their closest relatives who had advocated for recognition, were already dead and gone, it was a powerful moment in U.S. history and an important step for U.S. government-Native American relations.
Photo credit: MarineCorps NewYork.