The Great War Showed World the Horror of Total War Natives Knew Too Well
On June 28, 1914, a young Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip fired off some pistol shots that were incredibly lucky from his point of view and unlucky from the world’s. Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. The political upheaval touched off by those assassinations took millions of lives, redrew the map of the world, changed the rules of war forever… and fundamentally altered the status of American Indians in U.S. law.
Much of the U.S. media has been running pieces leading up to July 28, the centennial of what used to be called the Great War until WWII came along. After a month of threats back and forth in response to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which triggered mutual defense treaties, one after the other, until Europeans began to speak of “the world” being at war. Europe was, after all, in their minds, synonymous with “the world.”
Austria-Hungary’s alliance, the Central Powers, included Germany and the Ottoman Empire. On the other side were the Allied Powers: Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan. All of these powers, Central and Allied, had imperial interests. After three years of carnage, the United States joined the Allied Powers in what was by that time too big a war to fight with volunteers.
On May 28, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation authorizing conscription of all males between the ages of 21 and 30. As a matter of law, that would be all males who were U.S. citizens (although non-citizens were required to register), and at the time Indians were not generally considered citizens. The distinction in the Constitution of “Indians not taxed” was not understood in a uniform manner, but generally the idea was that Indians maintaining tribal relations were citizens of their tribal nations, but Indians who did not were still the wrong color to be U.S. citizens.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs enforced the requirement that Indians register with some vigor, setting up draft boards on each reservation. Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai) wrote of the peculiar status of Indians in 1917: “They are not citizens. They have fewer privileges than have foreigners. They are wards of the United States of America without their consent or the chance of protest on their part.”
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