Missouri State University’s Dr. William Meadows has devoted thirty years of his life to studying Native American code talkers who served in both world wars.
Meadows, professor of anthropology and Native American studies in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Gerontology, began researching the Comanche Code Talkers in 1992, then branched out to study other Plains Indian military societies for his doctoral studies at the University of Oklahoma in 1995.
Coming from a military family, Meadows became interested in finding out more about the military experience of Indigenous peoples early in his career.
As he explored their cultures, traditions and ceremonies, he discovered many Native Americans from several tribes had served as code talkers in both world wars. In particular, the Navajo were already well-known, but more than 30 other tribes were not.
At least 34 different tribes participated in the code formulation for World War I and World War II, according to Meadows.
“When I was interviewing Native American veterans, one of the Comanche veterans brought up his background in the war,” Meadows said. “He explained that he and some others were recruited to create an undecipherable code in their native language.”
“They were put in military prep schools with the aim of assimilating them into mainstream America,” Meadows explained. “They were banned from speaking their language or practicing any form of culture. It’s an irony that the same culture has brought them recognition.”
“Their stories are good examples of holding on to culture,” he added.
Enjoys MSU support to expand teaching and research efforts
Meadows has worked at MSU for 21 years and recognizes it as a home to work and write.
He enjoys the support he gets from MSU for his projects.
“I’m allowed to use my travel grants to go to places to speak about my work,” Meadows said. “MSU recognizes I can reach a bigger audience when I travel to present.”
Over the years, Meadows has also taken part in summer research projects related to his work.
Students benefit from these summer research projects because Meadows takes students into the field with him and teaches them his line of work.
“We live in an Indian community for six weeks, so I can do my work while still teaching how to do it,” Meadows said.
His large network of people from different tribes enables him not only to teach his classes, but also to organize Native American cultural events.
The hand game, a traditional hiding and guessing game played to drumming and singing, will take place at 7 p.m. Nov. 28 in the Plaster Student Union (lower level). The event is free and open to the public.
A sought-after expert
Besides his role as MSU professor, Meadows shares his knowledge nationally and internationally with a wide range of audiences.
“The phone has not stopped ringing,” Meadows said, referring to the many requests he gets to share his knowledge and research on the subject.
“During a presentation, there is enthusiasm in others who are learning of these subjects for the first time,” he explained. “I enjoy this aspect of my work, where I get to speak about Native American culture.”
Meadows testified before Congress in 2004 in support of the Native American Code Talkers Act, which was passed in 2008. The Act awarded congressional medals for all code talkers of both world wars.
He has spoken at various museums and cultural centers, as well as the Library of Congress, and is scheduled to speak at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 15. The event is free in person and online.
Meadows will speak about the Native American code talkers of World War I such as the Choctaw, Cherokee, Ho-Chunk, Sioux and others.
Besides his speaking engagements, Meadows also helps filmmakers.
In July, PBS sought Meadows’ expertise for two documentaries — one about the Comanche Code Talkers and the second on the Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society, one of the unique Plains Indian military societies in existence. Their ceremony, dances and history are exceedingly rich and are now documented.
In October, Meadows was interviewed by BBC Radio in London for a World War II Navajo code talkers documentary. It’s expected to air early next year.
Celebrating a rich Native American ceremonial culture
Meadows also investigates cultural aspects other than communication, such as ceremony and symbolism.
“Before a soldier goes to service, a ceremonial procession with prayers and religious blessings takes place,” Meadows explained. “A small bundle is prepared for the soldier to wear under his uniform.”
“After their service, a purification ceremony helps cleanse soldiers of any post-traumatic stress disorder caused by their experiences,” he added. “Their culture is full of symbolism and meaning.”
Also marked by its symbolic meaning is the Kiowa tribe’s once-in-a-year dance called The Turn Around or Reverse dance. The dance re-enacts a past battle the Kiowas won.
“This dance gets faster and faster until a veteran breaks rank, places his lance over the drum to stop the singers, then recites a battle deed,” Meadows said.
Moving forward with more research
In expanding his research, Meadows aims to cover all code talking tribes from both world wars. He notes that these veterans have aged. For example, only three Navajos remain, all in their mid-90s.
“I’m down to hunting archives,” he said.
Running apace with that is Meadow’s survey on the experiences of male and female Native American veterans of the Vietnam War till the present day.
“Now that women are allowed in more combat military roles, I’m documenting their experiences and struggles alongside those of men,” Meadows said. “I have an article coming out soon on the Kiowa Women Warriors, an all-female Kiowa veterans color guard.”
Meadows has published prolifically. Some of his recent and upcoming works include the following publications.
Books and Book Chapters
“The First Code Talkers: Native American Communicators in World War I.” University of Oklahoma Press.
“The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II.” University of Texas Press.
“Shaking Hands and Spirited Competition: the Hand game of the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache.” Texas A & M University Press.
Native American ‘Warriors’ in the United States Armed Forces, in “Inclusion in the American Military. A Force for Diversity: The Past, Present and Future of Inclusion in the Armed Services.” Lexington Books.
“On Dangerous Ground: Oglala Lakota Land Used as a Bombing Range in World War II is Still Perilous.” American Indian Magazine.
“The Kiowa Women Warriors.” American Indian Magazine.
“Give Me That Respect – That I’m a Veteran: The Kiowa Women Warriors Color Guard.” American Indian Quarterly 48(1).
“The Construction and Usage of Kiowa Personal Names.” International Journal of American Linguistics.
Edited by the Reynolds College Communications team.