Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

The Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation

The inaugural DRUM Award for patriotism is being awarded Nov. 1 to the Choctaw Code Talkers of World I for their contribution to freedom, liberty, peace and security.

A decade ago, news of the Choctaw Code Talkers was beginning to spread around the country. “Who were they?” many asked. Everyone had heard of the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II but the small group of Choctaw who first used their language to win a war was an enigma.

Many Choctaws volunteered their service to the United States at a time when some Native Americans weren’t considered citizens of the country they swore to protect. Their language was being banished. Often, talking to each other in Choctaw had to be done secretly.

Some of these Choctaw men were heard speaking their Native language in the midst of battlefields in France, prompting an officer not to punish but to grasp an opportunity he felt would make a difference in a war where the enemy seemed to have the upper hand.

Nineteen soldiers, members of the 36th Infantry Division, were trained to use their Choctaw words as “code.” They were placed strategically on front lines and at command posts so that messages could be transmitted without being understood by the enemy. The Germans had been tapping the Army’s phone lines, but when the Choctaws were put on the phones and talked in their Native speech, the Germans couldn’t effectively spy on the transmissions. The project was so successful, the U.S. Army recruited Native Americans before the beginning of World II to perform the same duties the Choctaws did in World War I.

“The Choctaw Nation is proud of the legacy of its Code Talkers,” said Chief Gregory E. Pyle. “They were sworn to secrecy and many of them kept the secret of their participation until they died. They are the epitome of valiant patriotism. It is fitting that the very first DRUM Award for patriotism honor the Code Talkers of World I.

“Legislation has also been passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate that includes awarding a gold medal to our Choctaw warriors and other Indian Code Talkers in subsequent wars,” Chief Pyle said. “We dedicated a monument last month on our capitol grounds honoring Tushka Homma, or red warrior. The face of the warrior is that of Joseph Oklahombi, one of the World War I Code Talkers,” he said. “Oklahombi was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in service to our country. His face is symbolic of all Choctaw warriors including those on the line today.”

There are bits of information passed down through families and newspapers about the private lives of some of the Choctaw Code Talkers.

James Edwards was a member of the Choctaw language “relay team” for messages. He also helped develop the code. “Twice big group” in Choctaw was used for battalion, “eight group” was a squad, “scalps” referred to casualties, “fast shooting gun” meant machine gun and “big gun” was field artillery.

Walter Veach was put in charge of creating an all-Indian company in the 36th division. Prior to the war, Veach served in the National Guard on the border between the United States and Mexico. His company had a major hand in stopping the Pancho Villa invasion of Texas.

Otis Leader, one of the most notable heroes of World War I, was 34 when he joined the Army. He and his Swiss employer, a rancher from Allen, Okla., went on a cattle-buying trip to Fort Worth. While there, the Swiss accent of the rancher combined with Leader’s tall, dark looks resulted in them being taken for a German spy and his Spaniard companion. This mistaken identity infuriated Leader so much he immediately went to the nearest recruiting office and signed up.

Solomon Louis was actually underage when he entered the armed services. The young man from Bryan County attended Armstrong Academy and followed his older friends to enlist. He pretended to be 18 so he, too, could join. Victor Brown received a citation from President Wilson after being wounded and gassed with mustard gas. Tobias Frazier was among the Choctaw men who helped break the Hindenberg line in 1918.

The other members of the World War I Choctaw Code Talkers were Robert Taylor, Jeff Nelson, Calvin Wilson, Mitchell Bobb, Pete Maytubby, Ben Carterby, Albert Billy, Ben Hampton, Joe Davenport, George Davenport, Noel Johnson and Ben Colbert.

Every Code Talker played a significant role in turning the outcome of the war, ensuring our freedom today.

The Drum Awards brings together citizens of Native American nations with a national awards program recognizing individuals and tribes for their accomplishments and contributions to society. The Awards are designed to build prestige for Native Americans and to promote a healthy sense of worth through first-class treatment of one another.