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Past Tense

Opinion: Native Americans serve during WWI and at Camp Gordon

USS Matsonia

Members of the Creek Nation who were sent to WWI Camp Gordon in Chamblee later traveled overseas aboard the ship USS Matsonia.

More than 12,000 Native Americans served in the military during World War I. The most well-known were the Choctaw code talkers, part of the 142nd Infantry. The Germans were able to break most codes, but when messages were sent by the Choctaw using their own language, the Germans were unable to break the code. Messages were sent between Oct. 26-28, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The use of their language led to a successful attack where the Germans were caught by surprise.

Members of the Cherokee, Eastern Band Cherokee, Comanche, Lakota, Sioux, Cheyenne, Osage, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) nations also helped communicate with their language. According to, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee from North Carolina are the earliest documented code talkers. They used their native language to send messages during the Somme offensive around Oct. 8, 1918, as part of the 105th Field Artillery Battalion, 30th Infantry Division.

In May of 1918, 25 men from the Creek Nation were transferred from Camp Travis, Texas. to Camp Gordon, a World War I encampment in Chamblee, Georgia. They were all graduates of Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, who volunteered for service. (Atlanta Constitution, May 2, 1918, “Gordon Now Boasts of Baseball Team of Full-Blooded Creek Indians”)

At Camp Gordon, they became part of the 8th company, 1st replacement forces. The Constitution article praises the soldiers as having “fast won the admiration of all with whom they have come into contact here by their courtesy and ability as soldiers.” However, the main subject is their ability as a baseball team. Camp Gordon already had active football and baseball teams. Mike Tahdooahnippah, a graduate of the Carlisle Boarding School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, became head of the new baseball team.

Members of the baseball team are listed by name: Samuel Mullen, Jacob Wahkinney, Bert Tanisahi Cable, Edward Nahquanady, James Maddox, Cleveland Tahpay, Gilbert Kauly, James Pakah and Mike Tahdooahnippah. By June 1918, these men were aboard the ship Matsonia heading overseas, so baseball quickly became a memory of their brief time at Camp Gordon.

Records show that the soldiers made it home. Their names are found in later documents, such as ships returning from France in 1919, Indian census rolls, and obituaries and grave records from decades later.

Many Native Americans were not recognized as U.S. citizens when the country entered WWI, making them ineligible for the draft. They volunteered for service. In 1919, all Native Americans who served during WWI were given citizenship, and in 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, finally recognizing all Native Americans as citizens. However, this did not necessarily equate to full rights, such as voting rights, in every state.

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