In his latest novel Charles Frazier the author of Cold Mountain, once again visits 19th century America. “Thirteen Moons” provides readers with an appreciation of the plight Native Americans of the southern Appalachians faced as settlers and government agents encroached upon their land. The story is told through the eyes of a white man who straddles both worlds as he uses his skills as a self-taught lawyer to help the Cherokee Nation try to hold onto their ancestral lands.
Frazier’s novel helped provide more understanding and historical insight into an episode of American history. I had often heard of the Five Civilized Tribes at family gatherings in Oklahoma with my wife’s relatives. Her father was born in Indian Territory, as eastern Oklahoma was known before it became a state in 1907. An older brother had married a Choctaw woman and their children were active participants at family reunions we attended. The Choctaw, along with Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles comprised the five tribes. In the 1830s they were the remaining major groups in the southeastern U.S. It was during the time that Congress faced with unabated pressure for Indian land passed the Indian Removal Act, paving the way for their relocation to Indian Territory.
We used to listen with interest to the stories told by my wife’s cousins. They told of attending Weelock, the Indian school, and their experiences with Indians from other tribes while working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on reservations in the west. The Choctaw had a rich heritage of acculturation of European customs and practices. One could sense the distinction they drew between the Five Civilized Tribes and other Native American groups. Their ancestors were land owners and slave holders, teachers and military veterans and they learned to converse and conduct business in the white man’s language. Frazier’s novel helped put into context for me the rationale of the time. However small one’s Choctaw’s lineage, or how one lived life, one was always considered an Indian.
I found the stories the relatives told around the back porch fascinating; they represented living history. One story they did not tell, and may not have even been aware of, I read in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram two weeks ago. A small band of Choctaw Indians volunteered when the U.S. entered World War I and joined the 36th Infantry Division. It was a joint Texas and Oklahoma outfit that made Camp Bowie popular in Fort Worth. In the summer of 1918 the 36th Infantry Division, small town boys from Texas and Oklahoma, marched to the Western Front. In early October, the division — attached to a French army group — went into combat in the Meuse-Argonne region against the Germans, who always seemed to know when and where to hit them.
According to the newspaper’s account, October proved to be a very bloody month for the 141st and 142nd Infantry. Someone, history is unclear exactly who it was, remembered that E Company, 142nd Infantry, went by the name of E Tribe because so many Indians served in it. The Indians were separated and sent to command posts around the area to pass on and translate messages. The Germans could listen in as much as they wanted but unless they grew up in southeastern Oklahoma, they wouldn’t have a clue to what was being said. Col. A.W. Bloor, the commander of the 142nd Infantry said the first time he used the code talkers was on Oct. 26 to withdraw some troops under cover of darkness. The Germans did not respond. The regiment attacked a few days later and surprised the Germans, sending them in full retreat. Two weeks after the Choctaws became code talkers, World War I came to a close, on the 11th day of the 11th month. When the Choctaws returned to their line units and word of what they had done reached higher levels of the Army, they were told to keep it to themselves.
On Sept. 16 on the grounds of Camp Mabry in Austin, the 18 code talkers were posthumously awarded the Lone Star Medal of Valor, the state’s second highest honor. Retired Col. Pat W. Simpson, director of the Texas National Guard museum said, they contributed with helping turn the tide of battle in our favor.
Nearly all of the family members who contributed to our education with their tales on the porch of the family headquarters are gone. It is too bad, because the Star-Telegram report is a story we sure would have liked to have told.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.