Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
11 Oct. 2021
Review by Robert S. McPherson, Utah State University
The First Code Talkers: Native American Communicators in World War I
By William C. Meadows
Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2021. Pp. xv, 358. ISBN 978–0–8061–6841–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War I, Code Talkers Print Version

As is now quite well known, the term "code talker" originated in the Navajo experience of World War II. In their numbers and in the value of their work, Navajo tribesmen made key contributions to the war effort, dwarfing those of other Native American groups. Nonetheless, in both World Wars, other tribes transmitted battlefield information via telecommunications but received only passing recognition. In The First Code Talkers, anthropologist and historian William Meadows[1] (Missouri State Univ.) clarifies these other groups' service in World War I. In particular, he concentrates on those who transmitted intelligence right on the battlefield, a radio in one hand and a rifle in the other.

The Germans' skill at intercepting information allowed them to counter moves made by Allied forces. Their ingenious system of wire-tapping, bugging abandoned positions, and intercepting radio transmissions enabled them to know in advance just what their opponents were about to do. To counter this, the Indian language proved to be one of the most secure means of communication. Although it was performed on a small scale, it proved highly effective.

Meadows is a noted specialist in Indian contributions to the military. The present book is the result of some thirty years of research into this topic.

The subject of WW I code talkers involves decades of public knowledge based primarily on several frequently reprinted news articles that are accurate in some respects and inaccurate in others. This trend has produced an oral and documentary history that has largely been taken at face value by scholars, Native tribes, and the general public. This body of knowledge has never been critically examined or questioned through analysis, source examination, or comparison with primary sources, including military records, officers' firsthand accounts, and censuses. As such, The First Code Talkers is a classic exercise in ethnohistorical methodology and source criticism, especially in its sifting through a large body of fragmentary and frequently repeated sources. (4)

Meadows notes that the limited contribution of Native Americans in the First World War was owing to the late arrival of US forces. Hence, code talkers did not affect the course of the war, although they did play critical roles in several engagements.

Historically, the US military made varying use of Indians as part of its field force. From colonial times to 1900, they were involved heavily in operations against other Indian groups. An attempt to form an all-Indian command in the 1890s was shortlived. When World War I started, certain tribes sent considerable numbers of men to serve in Gen. John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force. At least ten to twelve thousand Native Americans had enlisted by war's end; another seven thousand were drafted—in total this represented fully 25 percent of all eligible male Indians in the United States. The most notable and best documented of the tribes that contributed as code talkers was the Oklahoma Choctaw. Others included Cherokee, Comanche, Osage, Lakota, and Winnebago. The scant sources identify by name only eight Choctaw, five Comanche, and two Winnebago tribesmen, although there were no doubt others whom the records have not yet revealed.

Another key reason for the paucity of information on this Native American contribution is that there was no systematic program to use native languages. In the typical origin scenario, a junior officer, familiar with his men and their abilities, suggested using their linguistic talent to thwart enemy intelligence. He then equipped them with field phones or radios—one at each end of the communication line—and let them transmit. There was no formal code per se, though the native speakers sometimes agreed to use specific words in place of military terminology, in case the Germans caught on to what was being spoken. Hence, a grenade was a "stone," gas was "bad air," and a company was a "bow." The extant Choctaw list is comprised of seventeen words; for comparison, the Navajos by the end of World War II were using over six hundred words of this nature. Did the Choctaw necessarily need more words? Probably not, since the Germans would have had no idea what language was being spoken even without a code. Moreover, by the time the system began to bear fruit, the Armistice was about to be signed.

Another, even more important point to be considered: historically, the years 1914–1918 came near the tail end of the long subjugation, then denigration of Native Americans. The image of the "vanishing American" and the romantic stereotype of an Indian warrior were still in vogue. A movement was afoot that ultimately provided blanket citizenship to Native Americans (1924), and inherent cultural characteristics and influences all played well to a war-weary nation, looking beyond the ghastly horrors of World War I.

The Indian involvement in the conflict exemplified something good and definitely American. Newspaper coverage played upon what the public wanted, but not till after World War II, with its new set of Indian warriors and the declassification of the military's use of their language (not done during or since the Great War) did Native Americans receive anything like due recognition. Today, there are highways and bridges, movies and books, associations and memorials dedicated to those who served and used their language as code talkers. Native Americans' pride in past accomplishments has reached an all-time high, while recognition of their language and culture has benefited from the example of those who have gone before—a strong argument for cultural preservation.

The book includes a helpful appendix on World War I code-talker biographies and an extensive timeline that covers both world wars. Students of Native American history, World War I, and cultural history will find The First Code Talkers to be an accessible, well researched, and highly instructive study. We must be grateful to William Meadows for expanding our knowledge of a neglected subject.

[1] His earlier works includes The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II (Austin: U Texas Pr, 2002) and Kiowa Ethnogeography (id., 2000), among others.

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