It's an irony that probably didn't go unnoticed by Choctaw soldiers fighting in World War One. While the tribe's children were being whipped for speaking in their native tongue at schools back home in Oklahoma, on the battlefields of France the Native American language was the much-needed answer to a very big problem.
In the autumn of 1918, US troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. It was one of the largest frontline commitments of American soldiers in WW1, but communications in the field were compromised. The Germans had successfully tapped telephone lines, were deciphering codes and repeatedly capturing runners sent out to deliver messages directly.
"It was a huge problem and they couldn't figure out a way around it," says Matt Reed, curator of American Indian Collections at the Oklahoma History Center, the headquarters of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The solution was stumbled upon by chance, an overheard conversation between two Choctaw soldiers in the 142nd Infantry Regiment. The pair were chatting in camp when a captain walked by and asked what language they were speaking. Realising the potential for communication, he then asked if there were other speakers among the troops. The men knew of Choctaw soldiers at company headquarters. Using a field telephone the captain got the men to deliver a message in their native tongue which their colleagues quickly translated back into English. The Choctaw Telephone Squad was born and so was code talking. "Using the Choctaw language had huge advantages," says Dr William Meadows of Missouri State University, the only academic to have studied and written extensively on the Choctaw code talkers. "It was a largely unknown language. Only a few American Indian tribes had more than 20,000 people so their languages weren't widely spoken and most weren't written down. Even if they were, it was usually only the Bible and hymns, which were consumed locally."
The squad was put into action almost immediately. Within hours, eight Choctaw speakers had been dispatched to strategic positions. They were instrumental in helping US troops win several key battles, says Meadows.
Communication in WW1
Code Talkers Recognition Act 2008
But it was only in 2008 that the Code Talkers Recognition Act was passed in the US recognising the hundreds of overlooked code talkers from different tribes, including the Choctaw. Finally, in November last year, each tribal government received Congressional Gold Medals, America's highest civilian honour. They were inscribed with a unique design to represent their tribe. The families of each code talker received a silver version of the gold medal.
At the ceremony Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: "In this nation's hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed. The United States Government turned to a people and a language they had tried to eradicate."
It was a bittersweet moment, says Nashoba. "The original code talkers never got to see that day and many of their relatives who had campaigned so hard to get recognition for them had also died. But it was also an incredible moment, I can't put into words the joy and pride we felt. Those men deserved to be honoured."
No-one could have known that a conversation overheard by chance would end up being so significant, says Meadows. "Sometimes great things come about by accident rather than design."
Discover more about the inventive weird and wonderful ways messages were sent during WW1 and more about the World War One Centenary.
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