A Brief History of American Indian Military Service
Ask about Americans Indians serving in the U.S. military service and World War II generally comes to mind with the Navajo code talkers or perhaps Marine Cpl. Ira Hayes (Pima) in the photo of the U.S. flag raising at Iwo Jima. But the history of Native Americans in military services stretches in the past and the present much farther and deeper.
Basically from the time of European arrival on this continent, the indigenous people have taken sides and taken up arms in conflicts – though not always supporting the United States’ cause and sometime in conflicts against other tribal nations.
Robert Holden (Choctaw/Chickasaw), who is deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians and head of veterans affairs for them, believes that the strong tradition of warriors as leaders – both in war and peacetime – within tribal nations is one reason Natives continue to be drawn to military service.
“Even in those times of Vietnam, with the anti-war demonstrations, for veterans who returned to their own Native communities, there was not that kind of reception,” Holden said. “It’s the warrior cultures. Warriors have always been in our presence and always will be … not only in times of conflict, but in times of peace as well. They became the leaders.
An Air Force veteran, Iva Good Voice Flute (Oglala Lakota), adds that economic and educational opportunities continue to be a major draw, especially because the GI Bill provides money for post-secondary education. “I think it’s, first of all, with college being as expensive as it has become, it gives them that, and then to travel. … You’re going to grow; you will grow in so many good ways.”
Good Voice Flute, who earned the rank of senior airman and served much of her duty from 1991-1995 on Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota, founded an American Legion Post of Lakota women veterans in 1997. It later included men and women. Back on the Pine Ridge Reservation and still active in her community, Good Voice Flute has been interviewed by MS Magazine and is one of the oral history participants for the Women in the Military Service Memorial project.
Her service turned out to be an education for those in the military, too, Good Voice Flute said. She still chuckles about first joining up with the Air Force and discovering how many people had no idea that “Indians” still exist. “I was naïve, coming from the reservation (and South Dakota) where people know I’m Indian. They thought I was Italian, Greek, Hispanic – everything else but Native American.”
Once they found out her heritage, the questions were equally amusing. “Do you all still live in teepees?” she was asked. “I never took offense at it. It’s the process to educate the non-Native world. … It was a good learning experience; I met a lot of good people. I’m very satisfied and happy that I joined.”
Today Good Voice Flute is one of the 156,515 American Indian/Alaska Native veterans, according to U.S. Census figures, and, as of March 2012, the Pentagon reports 22,248 active-duty Native military members: 13,511 in the Navy; 4,404 in the Army; 2,205 in the Air Force; and 2,128 in the Marine Corps.
According to statistics provided from the U.S. Department of Defense, in 2010, 22,569 enlisted service members and 1,297 officers on active duty were of American Indian heritage. So while the U.S. population recorded nearly 1.4 percent American Indian, the military population was 1.7 percent Native, making it the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to defend the United States.
Sacrifices also are high. Since the beginning of the current actions in Iraq, 42 American Indian/Alaska Native service members have died in that country and 22 in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon estimates quoted by NCAI.
The history of Native participation in conflicts between the United States and other countries goes back before there officially was a United States. In the earliest conflicts between European and burgeoning U.S. interests, tribes split their loyalties, especially during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. During the Civil War, American Indians fought for both the South and the North as auxiliary troops.
For American Indians, serving in the military has been about volunteering. When President Woodrow Wilson declared a draft in 1914 when World War I began, American Indians were not eligible for the draft – they were not considered citizens of the United States. However some 12,000 volunteered for military service in that war, according to a Department of Defense (DOD) website celebrating American Indian Heritage Month.
The Iroquois Confederacy, according to that website, declared war against Germany in 1917.
About 600 American Indians from Oklahoma, mainly Choctaw and Cherokee, were part of the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division, according to the Navy’s history website. “The 142nd saw action in France and its soldiers were widely recognized for their contributions in battle. Four men from this unit were awarded the Croix de Guerre, while others received the Church War Cross for gallantry.”
The use of code talkers first started during World War I, primarily using the Choctaw language.
One result of World War I was granting of U.S. citizenship in 1919 for American Indian veterans who wished to apply for it. By 1940, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, commonly called the Snyder Act, and the Nationalities Act of 1940 offered full citizenship to all Natives and opened the way for their draft registration.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, there were 5,000 Native Americans listed in military service. By January 1942, the DOD reports, 99 percent of all eligible Native American men had registered for the draft and in July of that year the Iroquois Confederacy declared war on the Axis powers, as its declaration against Germany never ended.
During World War II, more than 44,000 Natives (out of a total U.S. population of 350,000, according to the DOD) served in the military. It was in 1942 that the Navajo code talkers were formed, using the complex Diné language as a basis for an unbreakable code for tactical messages. About 400 Navajo servicemen were recruited into the code talkers before the end of the war and the code talkers took part in every Marine Corps assault in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.
Native service was not just overseas or on the front lines. In the United States during World War II, about 40,000 American Indians worked in ordnance depots, factories and other war industries and “invested more than $50 million in war bonds, and contributed generously to the Red Cross and the Army and Navy Relief societies,” the Navy history site reports.
Many seasoned American Indian members of the military continued service during the Korean War, where an estimated 10,000 Natives served, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Notable Indians who served during that war include three who earned the Medal of Honor and three high-ranking military leaders. The first Indian to graduate from the Naval Academy, Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark (Cherokee), was the vice admiral in charge of the Navy’s 7th Fleet. He led behind-the-lines raids that he termed “Cherokee Strikes,” employing aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. Major General Hal L. Muldrow (Choctaw) commanded the 45th Infantry Division’s artillery division and Otwa Autry (Creek), who later became a brigadier general, led the 189th Field Artillery Battalion of the 45th Infantry Division.
Despite the eventual unpopularity of the Vietnam War, 90 percent of the more than 42,000 Natives who served in the military during that conflict were volunteers, according to the Navy.
American Indians have given distinguished service in all branches of the military from the very first. The Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor given by the United States was established in 1861 for the Navy and expanded in 1862 to the U.S. Army (and other branches later). The first American Indian to receive the medal came in 1869, when it was awarded to a Pawnee member of the U.S. Army’s Indian Scouts unit (discontinued as a separate element of the Army in 1947, according to the DOD). Since 1869, 27 military members of American Indian/Alaskan Native heritage have received the Medal of Honor, some of whom died protecting their comrades in the service.
“There was a camaraderie that transcends ethnicity when you serve your country overseas in wartime,” Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne), the former U.S. senator and a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Korean War, is quoted by the Navy’s military history website.
That camaraderie remains a strong memory for many of their military service, said NCAI’s Holden. “When they were in those bunkers or those foxholes, there was no black, yellow, red or white, it was just covering each other’s backs.”