Eye of the Beholder: Chocktawkin’

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“Let those laugh who can show more scalps than I can,” said Chieftain Pashmataha, tossing five scalps on the ground, the result of a single-handed onslaught on the enemy’s rear.

So goes the legend of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma. Such a show of bravery was nothing out of the ordinary for them. Oklahoma, the name, in fact is derived from the tribal language, meaning Land of the Red People (okla means the people, homma means red).

During World War I, these brave but humble farmers volunteered to fight, though they weren’t yet considered citizens of the U.S. Many other tribes did the same, and the Native American troops totaled 10,000 strong in the U.S. Army.

A certain Colonel Bloor, distressed by German code breakers tapping American military communications, saw these soldiers had a critical advantage – there were 26 different languages or dialects spoken among the troops stationed in Vaux Champagne, only 4 or 5 of which were written. Among them were 19 Choctaws, whose complex language would never be understood by the eavesdropping enemy.

There were enough Choctaws in the regiment to be posted on both ends of the radio, so they spoke directly to each other in their own language, not needing to teach their language to other soldiers or relying on others to decipher meanings. They had never developed a military vocabulary and had to adapt – to say machine gun, they used the words “little gun shoot fast,” and the battalions were referred to as one, two or three grains of corn.

The Choctaws’ first radio task was to order the delicate withdrawal of two companies on the night of October 26, 1917. Having done well, they were called to task again the following day in preparation for the assault on Forest Farm. Their mission proved successful as the Germans, flustered by this “change of plans,” retreated, and within 72 hours of Choctaw involvement, the tide turned and the Allies went into full-attack mode.

These men never considered themselves “codetalkers,” nor did the term even exist until after WWII when Navajo tribesmen became well known for the same task. Instead, the Choctaw in their traditional way just referred to it as “talking on the radio.” They were finally granted voting rights in 1924, and honored for their valor first by France, then by the U.S. government in 2008.

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