WWI Choctaw code talkers receive place in OK State Capitol

Thanks in part to 2002’s “Windtalkers,” a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Nicholas Cage based on their story, the Navajo code talkers of World War II are generally well known to Americans. Serving in the Pacific Theatre, Navajo recruits used their native language to communicate sensitive information between units.

The Japanese were never able to decipher Navajo and the practice proved so successful that from an initial group of 30, the program expanded to include over 400 “Wind Talkers.” Members of the Sioux tribe also served in the Pacific as code talkers. In 2001, the Navajo code talkers were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for their service, one of the nation’s highest honors.

Much less known are the Choctaw code talkers of World War I. Similarly, they used their native language in the service of the U.S. military to confound an enemy which had thoroughly corrupted the ability to communicate privately. Unlike the Navajo code talkers of World War II, the Choctaw – all Native Americans serving in World War I, all Native Americans for that fact – were not even considered U.S. citizens. That wouldn’t come until 1924.

In 2008, the Choctaw and members of other Native nations serving as code talkers in combat were finally recognized for their skill and bravery with the Code Talkers Recognition Act, but until there’s a movie, artist Dylan Cavin (Choctaw) will have to fill in for Nick Cage when it comes to taking the Choctaw code talkers mainstream. Cavin is doing so thanks to a newly commissioned painting now hanging inside the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Titled Anumpa Luma Anumpuli – Choctaw for “code talkers” – the 36×48-inch painting takes inspiration from a black-and-white photo of the Choctaw code talkers of which a few exist.

While Cavin grew up with stories of the Choctaw code talkers, “everyone I talk to, they’re surprised,” he said of the reaction to the painting’s subject matter.

“It’s great visibility, it’s one of those things that gets overshadowed by WWII,” Cavin said of the artwork. “It’s nice recognition and me being from Oklahoma and the Choctaw Tribe being an Oklahoma tribe, it’s nice having that visibility there.”

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

Oklahoma State Capitol Art Collection

The Oklahoma State Capitol Art Collection dates back to the 1920s. Throughout the Capitol, hundreds of artworks from numerous public collections are on view making it the state’s largest art museum in addition to the seat of government. Depicted are Oklahoma’s historic events, natural resources and notable people.

Thanks to more than 20 new commissions for 2022, now joining the ranks are portraits of Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), “Doc” Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) and Chief Allen Wright (Choctaw), prominent Native American figures from state history. Other artworks from contemporary Indigenous artists connected to the state–Jessica Harjo (Otoe-Missouria, Osage, Pawnee, Sac and Fox) and Anita Fields (Osage, Muscogee)–share storytelling, legends and culture related to the 39 tribal nations which today call Oklahoma home.

This new Indigenous emphasis begins in the Capitol’s entrance where visitors are now greeted by a video incorporating Native languages produced by Buffalo Nickel Creative with the help of Sterlin Harjo (Seminole, Muscogee), co-creator of the hit series “Reservation Dogs,” which is set in Oklahoma. Artwork throughout the ground floor reflects pre-statehood and Native American history. The centerpiece is a mural by Yatika Starr Fields (Cherokee, Creek, Osage) depicting the Spiro Mounds as a center of commerce in pre-contact Oklahoma.

Anumpa Luma Anumpuli can now be seen outside the Supreme Court’s chambers in the building, not far from a Wayne Cooper artwork highlighting the World War II Navajo code talkers.

As a veteran, a Choctaw and being born and raised in Oklahoma (b. 1978; Chickashaw), Cavin checked all the boxes the Oklahoma Arts Council was looking for when seeking an artist to depict the code talkers. While he put off and put off applying for the project, subtle, and then not so subtle, nudging from the Choctaw Nation and their help on the application finally encouraged him to do so.

“For me, it’s surreal being up there,” Cavin said. “I was just shooting for trying to be a finalist. I was amazed to be chosen for it. It’s a big honor.”

And now the long-neglected Choctaw code talkers will take their rightful place in Oklahoma history with their likeness placed alongside the those of the most prominent Oklahomans including Will Rogers, Jim Thorpe and Mickey Mantle.

Nocona Burgess and “Doc” Tate Nevaquaya

Nocona Burgess, Doc Tate Nevaquaya (2022). 48x36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Nocona Burgess, Doc Tate Nevaquaya (2022). 48×36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Cavin knew of the Choctaw code talkers. Nocona Burgess (b. 1969; Comanche) knew the subject of his new Oklahoma State Capitol commission painting personally. “Doc” Tate Nevaquaya (1932-1996) was a family friend. “Uncle Doc” he called him. Burgess’ grandfather and Nevaquaya were pals. Nevaquaya kept an eye out for his buddy’s son–Burgess’ father–after dad passed away while the boy was still young. Nevaquaya taught Burgess how to play the Indian flute.

“I’ve always been around him and his family; I’m really good friends with his children and his grandchildren, so (the commission) was a big deal for me,” Burgess said.

Nevaquaya’s painting can be seen on the building’s second floor, featuring “Hall of Heroes; Hall of Governors; Oklahoma Cultural Treasures.”

“I remember as I was working on it, I would send pictures to my dad to make sure that it looked right because my dad knew him really well,” Burgess said. “The photograph that I used as reference is one that my dad had.”

Burgess looks forward to the day when his child visits the painting.

“I don’t impress my 13-year-old very often, but we were talking about it and I said, ‘someday when you’re a little old man and you take your grandkids into the state capitol, it’s going be there, even beyond that, it’s something that’s always going be there,’ and he was like, ‘that’s pretty cool,’” Burgess said.

With the Capitol renovation complete, a formal, museum-quality program to train volunteer docents has begun for tours of the building and art collection. Anyone interested in a tour can inquire by contacting Capitol staff at tours@arts.ok.gov.

The work of both Dylan Cavin and Nocona Burgess is available for purchase at WYLD Gallery on-line and in Austin, TX.

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