I learned how Native Americans helped win WWI with their languages not even being United States citizens yet. I did know that native languages were used in wars and about the hard life of Native Americans of that time, but most of the rest was entirely new to me.

The safe exchange of information is crucially important for warfare, but the code used was repeatedly broken, which eliminated the effect of surprise attacks.  Due to the fact that Native American languages were from a different language family than English and German, not Germanic, and unusual substitutions of military terms were used, the U.S. enemy - primarily Germans at that time - were not able to decode the messages and to gain the strategic advantage over the U.S. forces. Thousands of members of Native American tribes who lived in harsh conditions on reservations volunteered to fight in Europe. Some tribes declared a war on Germany to defend their land and utilize their warrior skills. The new “code” was never broken end its use accelerated the victory significantly. Native fighters earned the respect of other officers and soldiers, and their help enabled eventual citizenship for all Native Americans, with no strings attached like with the previous brutal policies on their assimilation.

The experience of these people is a great illustration of an ongoing internal conflict in the United States, of the drastic changes the society needed to make to win the first world war, and of new opportunities for earlier disadvantaged people in the shaken-up society. It also exemplifies the theory of punctuated equilibrium applied to social sciences, when relative stability in a complex society is “punctuated” by sudden events like a big war in this case, and can lead to significant changes, similar to establishing more equal rights among members of society, like respect and citizenship for Native Americans, who used their American languages to help the common cause.

The most memorable thing I learned about this topic is the willingness of Native Americans to defend their lands, primarily because it requires so much spirit and courage, and also a sense of responsibility. The second memorable thing would be the metaphors they used to describe terrible weapons: turtle for a tank and bad air for poisonous gas.

If I would need to introduce someone to the topic of Native Americans' participation in World War One, I would concentrate on three things: first, how large-scale tragedies can facilitate a change but that it is possibly better not to wait for wars and violent revolutions but lean that societies need to change and adapt to prevent them to happen, second, how obscure languages can become extremely useful not only providing a different worldview and methods to classify reality but can become an unexpected solution to very concrete problems, and third, how people from less esteemed groups can shine and be of tremendous help to others in time of need different from normal conditions.

Looking at the photographs of airplanes used in WWI and the original footage with the smiling soldiers made me think about the way humanity uses its biggest inventions and of the horrors of this war where the weapons of mass destruction were used on an unheard-of scale. The desire of humans to fly and all the attempts at it in history, the work on the invention of the first airplane I learned from a book on the Wright brothers, who were by the way Americans, and the following so soon turning this wonderful machine into a destruction device and use it by people with so much fewer talents but with murderous abilities, makes me wonder whether humanity would actually learn to protect itself from some of its members. Among these people are certainly the two German generals leading WWI as a military dictatorship after 1916, and Wilhelm II who was possibly dominated by them and stayed either passive or encouraging.

Science, technology, and industrialization made it possible for WWI to be so lethal because as soon as one country started mass-making war airplanes, tanks, and artillery and using them against others, those societies in response needed to convert their productive industries into destructive tools necessary for defense. Even countries like the United States who tried to avoid the involvement for so long, eventually put themselves in a state of war in a response to a threat to be invaded by neighboring Mexico, based on the Zimmerman telegram with such a secret diplomatic message from this German statesman to his colleague in Mexico about forming a military alliance and starting sinking any ships without warning with submarines, intercepted and decoded.

I understand better now, how political, economic, and personal factors synergistically create turns in history.

War, Native Americans


Lena Nechet, artist - Fine art, media productions, language.
San Diego, California , USA, LenaNechet.com
Art@LenaNechet.com 323-686-1771

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