WWI Code Talkers exhibit opens
Choctaw Nation citizen Rick Wood of Ola, Arkansas, visits the “Untold Stories: American Indian Code Talkers of World War I” exhibit during its opening on Nov. 4 at the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The exhibit will run through Feb. 2. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
A panel in the “Untold Stories: American Indian Code Talkers of World War I” exhibit honors Cherokee soldier and Code Talker George Adair, who served with the 36th Division of the U.S. Army during World War I. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock on Nov. 4 opened an exhibit on the history of Americans Indians who served as Code Talkers during World War I.
The “Untold Stories: American Indian Code Talkers of World War I” exhibit will run to Feb. 2.
During WWI, Native Americans transmitted military messages in their Native languages between U.S. forces and their allies. Germans forces had broken American codes but could not decode Native codes and messages. The Americans Indian Code Talker program expanded during WWII and included additional tribes.
“Today is our exhibit opening for “Untold Stories: American Indian Code Talkers of World War I.” The exhibit starts out with the history of Indian boarding schools and how those were prime places of recruitment for American Indians,” Erin Fehr, exhibit curator, said. “And then we go in and talk about the different tribes that have been identified as Code Talkers for World War I. We have the Choctaws, the Comanches, the Osages and Standing Rock Sioux. We have one identified Osage and one identified Cherokee even though we know that there is evidence that some of the Eastern Band Cherokees participated, and we do talk about that.”
Before the exhibit’s opening, SNRC Director Dr. Dan Littlefield provided information to put a “frame” around the exhibit. He said after the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, Native Americans began enlisting in the military. At that time there were 336,000 Native Americans in the United States, and about 12,000 enlisted in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps to serve during WWI.
“I’ve seen the number as high as 17,000, and I think the research is going to show that the 12,000 number is probably a little too low,” Littlefield said. “After the fact, Indians had the lowest casualty rates of any identified group in the service.”
Littlefield said many Native servicemen talked about “defending the homeland” and were not just talking about the United States but about North America.
“Expressions like protecting our lands or protecting our nation referred as much to tribal lands as it did to land of the United States,” he said. “Some of them would talk about defending ‘our Native land.’”
Camp Pike, which was north of Little Rock, and the role it played during WWI is also part of the exhibit. Native American military personnel trained and mustered out of the military there after the war ended in 1918.
“And then we talk about the legacy. For a lot of those men who fought it was the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. It also paved the way for Indian code talkers to come in World War II,” Fehr said.
Also for the exhibit, Fehr and her assistants compiled the names of as many men as possible from tribes who served during WWI and placed them on a large display separated by their respective tribes.
“It’s called our ‘Wall of Honor.’ On our wall we have about 2,300 names, and it is by no means complete, but it is a start,” Fehr said.
Judy Allen, Choctaw Nation historic projects officer and Choctaw Code Talker Association board member, said she’s researched Choctaw Code Talkers since the 1980s. She said exhibits have been developed for American Indian Code Talker program during the years, including the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit.
“They’ve put a lot of work and collaboration into the one here. It looks very special,” Allen said. “They have a lot of photographs, some I’ve never seen before. So I’m excited to see exactly what the captions read.”
She said the university collaborated with the Choctaw Nation for the exhibit, but even with that collaboration there is a Choctaw photo in the exhibit she’s never seen.
Choctaw language speaker Chantelle Standefer shared how Choctaw Code Talkers adapted their language to things they were seeing on the battlefield. Her great-grandfather, Tobias Frazier, was a WWI Code Talker.
In 1918, U.S. forces in France were having communication difficulties on the battlefield. Their communications were compromised because the Germans were tapping into their telephone lines and had deciphered American codes. By chance, an officer in the 142nd Infantry Regiment heard two Choctaw soldiers conversing in the Choctaw language. This led to an experiment where the Choctaw soldiers were asked to communicate with other Choctaws at company headquarters using their language. The test was a success and the Choctaw Telephone Squad was born.
“One thing about the Choctaw language is we are adaptive, so if we see something and we don’t have a word for it, we’ll make up one, we’ll describe it,” Standefer said. “So they (Choctaw soldiers) saw things like a tank...and they said that looks like a turtle, so they called it luksi. And for guns, we didn’t necessarily have the word for that, so we adapted and used the word for bow.”
She said reports state the Choctaw language confused the German army because it sounded like someone was talking underwater.
“So it was a message that they could not crack. It was effective in translating messages, and Indian Code Talker efforts have been credited with helping the war come to a close a lot sooner and is credited with saving several thousand, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives.”
The SNRC is located in Suite 500, University Plaza, UALR at 5820 Asher Ave.