Who Were the First Code Talkers?

In 1918, during World War I, a group of American troops participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive on the Western Front. It was one of the largest operations of U.S. soldiers at war, but communications on the field were in danger. The Germans had succeeded in tapping phone lines and were deciphering codes. Messengers could not be sent to hand over instructions, either, as they had been captured. As fate would have it, after hearing some Choctaw soldiers pass by (a Native American nation whose language is part of the Muscogee group) speaking in their language, the first “code talkers” were born. Thanks to them and their virtually unknown language, a crucial advantage over the enemy was achieved.

But what is the history of the Choctaw, the group to which these soldiers belonged, soldiers who collaborated with the army of a country that had oppressed them?

The process of destruction of this and other cultures began in the nineteenth century. The Choctaw were known as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” because they had adopted some of the practices of the other residents of the United States. However, by signing several treaties, they were expelled from Mississippi and were forced to relocate to the west in order for the natural resources of their native area to be seized. During the crossing, approximately 20% of Choctaws died of starvation, disease, and exhaustion. The idea was to achieve “cultural assimilation” of Native American groups, and so they began to force many children to learn English and harshly punished them if they spoke their native language. The Choctaw struggled to build a nation in Oklahoma, but tribal governments were dissolved by the Dawes Act, and appointed chiefs were removed.

All members of the squad who fought in WWI returned home to their families and to their state of exclusion. Although their work influenced military communications in subsequent conflicts, and other Native American populations (such as the Comanche), would be used in the same way later on, virtually no one outside the tribe knew of their importance.

After the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Choctaw reestablished their government and their culture survived, even despite the years of oppression. However, they continued to struggle economically due to bigotry, cultural isolation, and unemployment. With the reorganization and the establishment of a tribal government, however, in the following decades they were able to manage schools, health care centers, legal and judicial systems, and social programs. Since the mid-twentieth century, they have created new institutions to enable them to act with independence, and they are recognized at the federal level.

Finally, a few years ago, the U.S. Congress recognized all people who worked as code talkers, including the Choctaw, giving gold medals (the highest level of civil distinction) to tribal governments. Although the original code talkers never lived to see the day of their work being recognized, they were finally paid the homage they were due.