Wah-Zha-Zhi Code Talkers

In April of 1917, the United States entered the World War. Native Americans enlisted and from the Wah-Zha-Zhi Ni-Kah-Zhi (Osage Nation) nearly two hundred men joined up for the fight.

What was unique about those first Native Americans, who volunteered to serve in World War I, was that they were not citizens of the United States. Yet, “… Without regard to that lack of citizenship, members of Indian tribes and nations enlisted in the Armed Forces ….” Why would they risk their lives for a country with which their ancestors had been in deadly conflicts for centuries? For the same reason Americans were willing to give their lives to—a place that was home, a place where ancestors were buried, and were family lived. There was a “tradition of protecting their people.”

In addition to a “sense of patriotism” there were other benefits for a soldier such as “economic security” or “an opportunity for education, training, and world travel.” So, during World War I over 12,000 Native Americans served in the military; 10,000 in the army and 2,000 in the Navy. This was “about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at that time.” The Wah-Zha-Zhi Ni-Kah-Zhi had more men serve per capita than any other tribe.

The Smithsonian’s research shows Osage Code Talkers were only made use of during World War I. And little is actually known about them. This had been such a secretive program and “classified by the military,” the soldiers’ contributions to the war effort went unknown.

Native Code Talkers were “communications specialists.” It was vital to the military to keep their battle plans such as “troop movements, enemy positions, and other critical information” secret. But deciphering radio codes was a skill both sides of the war employed. The languages of the Native American soldiers offered a new tactic to the military. These indigenous languages were so unique the codes developed by the Native soldiers and transmitted to one another simply could not be decrypted.

During the George W. Bush administration, the Senate and House of Representatives passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008. The purpose of the Act was to issue medals expressing “recognition for dedication and valor” and to provide a “long overdue” honor. The Act stated: “This use of Native American code talkers was the first time in modern warfare that such a transmission of messages in a native language was used for the purpose of confusing an enemy.”

Last November, 2013, an Osage delegation was invited to attend the Code Taker Medal Ceremony in Washington D.C., where they received the Osage Code Talker medal. The ceremony was done with full military honors; military and patriotic selections were played; political leaders from both parties attended; Speaker of the House John Boehner gave the welcoming address; and Oklahoma’s U.S Representative Tom Cole and U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe, spoke.

Osage Nation Congressman John Maker said it “made me swell with pride to be in attendance to such a huge event and as a Native American veteran of the U.S. Army. And hearing all the speakers, in attendance, was really an honor.”

The Osage Code Talker medal on one side depicts the soldier holding the radio handset looking up as he focuses on the task before him with barbed wire in the background representing the threat to the soldier. On the reverse is the Osage Nation Seal.

World War I is often times referred to as “The Great War.” It was seen as “the war to end all wars.” On June 28, 1919 in the Palace of Versailles, in France, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. But an armistice, a “temporary cessation of hostilities between the Allied nations and Germany,” had ceased the fighting seven months earlier.

This is significant because: On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the war ended; it was November 11, 1918.

November 11th or Armistice Day was first a day to reflect on the heroism of those who had died. The idea originally was a day of celebration with parades and public meetings, and a “brief suspension of business beginning at 11:00 am.” Then in 1926, the U.S. Congress officially recognized the end of the war with a resolution. Over time, the date was officially made a holiday and the purpose was to remember the importance of that date and through celebration “honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”

On September 29, 1917 the patriotic organization known as the American War Mothers was established. It was a group of mothers of military personnel volunteering to “work for the welfare of veterans and so that the contributions of our children to the defense of our country will not be forgotten.” The Osage people have two such groups, Mi-Tho-Ti-Moi Chapter 6 of Hominy and Grayhorse Chapter 15. These two groups continue to honor the veterans; Hominy hosts the Veteran’s Day Dance at the Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center in Pawhuska every other year and Grayhorse hosts a Soldier Dance each Mother’s Day weekend.

In 1927, on Armistice Day, the All-Indian American Legion Post honored Indian veterans with a procession from Grayhorse to the Fairfax cemetery stopping at graves of Joe Bigheart, Bill McKinley, and traveling “to the grave of John Yellowhorse Bates, east of Fairfax. And at the final stop at the Fairfax cemetery with the final service over the grave of William Stepson.” The next days would include a feast, parade at Grayhorse, and the Soldier’s Dance.

On November 11th, the Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center and the Mi-Tho-Ti-Moi Chapter 6 will host this year’s Veteran’s Day Dance.


  1. Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008

  2. “Native Words, Native Warriors,” Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, http://nmai.si.edu/education/codetakers/html/index.html

  3. Viola, Herman J., Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism.National Geographic, 2008.

  4. Osage Nation Congressman John Maker, email 15 Oct 2014

  5. “Osage Code Talkers Honored with U.S. Congressional Gold Medal,” ICTMN staff, 17 Dec 2013.http://indincountrytodaymedianetwork.com

  6. “History of Veterans Day,” http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp

  7. “Indians Hold Impressive Services.”The Fairfax Chief, Fairfax OK18 Nov 1927

  8. “National AWM President Visits State American War Mothers.”www.brokenclaw.net

  9. “American War Mothers Inc.” www.americanwarmothersofmd.com/history