Introduction: France Research Trip for the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I Novel

The Impossible Beginning

My first thought was to say no. And I did. I couldn’t pull together a trip to France in two months. I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the time to plan such a venture. I didn’t have the time to take off work.

But I did have a passport and a whole lot of encouragement. 

 Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I and their commanding officer, Captain Elijah Horner of Arkansas

Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I and their commanding officer, Captain Elijah Horner of Arkansas

I had researched and worked on a novel about the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I for years, and had focused on it nearly two years as my main creative project when I heard of a Choctaw that was traveling to France to present at a conference about these first Indian Code Talkers. How cool was that? Yet it was so much out of my reach, until a roundabout connection with the presenter’s cousin at a Choctaw cultural gathering in San Antonio. 

Even my mama couldn’t remember how it all came about until I reminded her that she was the one who met the cousin and encouraged her to talk to me. That cousin reached out to me by email after our conversation with the presenter's email address. I made the connection and was questioned on what kind of primary resources I was using for my novel. 

I completely understood. So much of Native, and Choctaw, history has been highjacked and so miswritten it can twist my stomach. So I set about relieving my new acquaintance’s concerns with a list of research I'd done so far for this project with:

Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation and Genealogy departments, the Choctaw Code Talkers Association, Dr. William Meadows (who is writing a non-fiction book about Indian code talkers of World War I) of Missouri State University, the Sequoyah Research Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, the National Archives in D.C. and College Park, Maryland. 

France was the last place where I had yet to research, though the thought had tickled in the back of my mind for months.

That led to an excited conversation with the presenter, Tiajuana Cochnauer. Ten minutes into the conversation about Choctaw history and culture, she mentioned her brother, saying I may have heard of him. Paul King. 

Um, yes! In fact, I had already spoken with him about possibly doing an illustration for the novel. And as a matter of fact, I had met Tiajuana at the Choctaw Labor Day festival, I just never caught her name. She was there with Paul and his artwork and her fabric art at the booth down the aisle from where we were set up. 

Small world.

When I mentioned how much I wished I could join her in France, she invited me to join her, excited not to have to travel alone. 

“Ah, wish I could, but I couldn’t possibly…”

This just might be possible.

I started with asking amongst my Facebook friends, family, and newsletter readers if anyone had frequent flyer miles to donate. Before I knew it, people asked where they could send a check for my trip.

Wait a minute. Could I really go?

My brother, Doug, said I should set up a fundraising campaign. I did, and my jaw dropped as funds rolled in.

It was like that moment in National Treasure in the stunning research room at the Library of Congress when Riley is pouring over Ben’s plans to steal the Declaration of Independence. Riley mumbles, fumbles, and finally says,

“This just might be possible.”

And it was. I went to France.

Wanting to stay well within budget with the gracious donations, my personal funds, and support from my tribe, I took a “scenic” roundabout flight with a significantly lower price tag that actually added to the adventure: 

Dallas/Fort Worth to Chicago to Dublin to Paris. 

Three flights total, a few of which I had to dash through the airports for the final boarding calls because of flight delays. But through that journey, I was able to reflect on and share Choctaw history on a global scale with my Facebook followers:

How Chicago and Paris are connected through the Ferris Wheel and the Eiffel Tower in the 1890s. How the Choctaws are forever connected to the Irish people through a humble donation made over 150 years ago. And how Choctaws left a Fort Worth training camp in 1918 and landed in France a hundred years ago to help bring an end to the most brutal war in human history up to that point. 

 German cemetery, Saint-Étienne-à-Arnes, France

German cemetery, Saint-Étienne-à-Arnes, France

“The War to End All Wars”

How much do you know about World War I? If you’re like me, it would take reading a half a dozen books, pouring over military reports, and watching at least five documentaries before the magnitude of that war began to sink into your consciousness. 

At that point, casual interest transforms into reality, and without warning, the war is in your heart and you feel you lived through it and wonder why everyone forgot it. You begin to understand a tiny bit of what the French and the Germans and the British and the Americans and the Choctaws and everyone else in the world felt during those years, ’14-’18.

Through this blog series, I hope you experience not only the history but that it becomes real to you, that you grasp the significance of each life given in that tragic conflict. 

May we never, never forget.

 St. Mihiel American Cemetery

St. Mihiel American Cemetery

“The devotion, their valor and their sacrifice will live forever in the heart of their grateful countrymen.” -- General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.