One of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeastern United States, the Choctaw traditionally farmed corn, beans and pumpkins while also hunting, fishing and gathering wild edibles. Despite allying themselves with the United States in the War of 1812, they were pressured afterwards into ceding millions of acres of land to the government.
Following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, most members of the tribe were then forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma in a series of journeys that left an estimated 2,500 dead. In what would become a catchphrase for all Indian removal west of the Mississippi River, a Choctaw chief described it as a “trail of tears.”
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, it had not yet granted citizenship to all Native Americans, and government-run boarding schools were still largely attempting to stamp out their languages and cultures. Nonetheless, several thousand Native Americans enlisted in the armed forces to fight the Central Powers. Nearly 1,000 of them representing some 26 tribes joined the 36th Division alone, which consisted of men from Texas and Oklahoma.
“They saw that they were needed to protect home and country,” said Judy Allen, senior executive officer of tribal relations for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, “so they went to the nearest facility where they could sign up and were shipped out.”
In summer 1918, the 36th Division arrived in France to participate in the upcoming Meuse-Argonne campaign, a major offensive along the Western Front. At that point, the outcome of the conflict was still in doubt.