Bomb Flesh: Unknown Warriors in the Liberation of France
Thirty-nine year old David Constantin (French) and one of the organizers of the recent three-day event, Standing Buffalo Commemorative Days (August 30-September 1, 2012), honoring Native peoples who fought in the liberation of France during the First and Second World War, attracted more than 2,000 people at Parc d’ Olhain, Pas de Calais, France. The gathering was a preliminary celebration that brought together American Indian singers, dancers, drummers and others from France, Canada, United States, and South America as France prepares for its centennial, slated for 2014, marking the beginning of World War I in Europe.
Constantin started researching Indians who fought in the wars when he was 18, and has since created an activist group called Regagner Les Plaines (Regain the Plains), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the rights and culture of Native Americans in Europe. He asserts, “Indians and African Americans were often referred to by the French as "bomb flesh"—disposable human lives for U.S. military action, being fought on the frontlines of France, against Germany.” He continues, “My grandfather was a prisoner of the Nazis in Germany, and thanks to the Indians, who first set foot on the beach at Normandy, he survived.” He says, “This event is our way of commemorating their service to our country’s freedom. It’s also personal.”
Historically, Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups. This Native American service with the U.S. actually goes back to the Revolutionary War when they were allies, when Native people served next to Gen. George Washington and his Continental Army. Some Native troops also served in the Carolinas and Virginia against the British Army. Native scouts were present at the British surrender at Yorktown. Continuing through the War of 1812, Indians served as auxiliary troops and scouts during the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848; the American Civil War, 1861-1865; and served as Rough Riders and seeing action in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Indians would later accompany Gen. John J. Pershing's expedition to Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916.
As the military entered the 20th century, American Indians would play an even larger role in military theaters worldwide.
According to the United States Department of Defense by CEHIP, Inc. of Washington, D.C., in partnership with Native American advisors Rodger Bucholz, William Fields and Ursula P. Roach in 1996, “It is estimated that more than 12,000 American Indians served in the United States military in World War I. Approximately 600 Oklahoma Indians, mostly Choctaw and Cherokee, were assigned to the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division. 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 report continues, “More than 44,000 American Indians, out of a total Native American population of less than 350,000, served with distinction between 1941 and 1945 in both European and Pacific theaters of war.” And, “Battle-experienced American Indian troops from World War II were joined by newly recruited Native Americans to fight Communist aggression during the Korean conflict…More than 42,000 Native Americans, more than 90 percent of them volunteers, fought in Vietnam. Native American contributions in United States military combat continued in the 1980s and 1990s as they saw duty in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, and the Persian Gulf.”
Joining Constantin is Jean Marc Tavernier (Cheyenne-Lakota), who was stolen, as a baby, from his parents and illegally brought to France and later adopted, heads Oyate Lakota Association. He is often assisted by his wife Hél?na Manien (French), who helped organize the event, performed a prayer ceremony that concluded with the laying of a wreath, while others gave tobacco offerings at the grave site of Canadian Soldier Joseph Standing Buffalo, for whom the event is named, and the grandson of Sitting Bull. Also in attendance were Mayor Jean-Claude Blouin, Pas de Calais, France and Canadian Counselet Marie José Ayme. Both dignitaries offered their hands in friendship by thanking the group for their effort in making the public aware of the military contributions and sacrifice of Native Americans. Their participation also signals the beginning of wanting to heal the past. Parc d’ Olhain manager Yanik Audinot, also showed support by graciously donating performance space, cabins and free meals to those who participated in the event. Valerie Marie, President of the non-profit group,
Sacred Amerindians People, had printed all the fliers; I even managed to slip a copy of This Week From Indian Country Today to the Canadian Consulate!
Standing Buffalo was laid to rest 29 September, 1918 at Bucquoy Road War Cemetery, Ficheux. Pas de Calais. According to Jean Marc, “Most Europeans believe American Indians stopped existing around the 1800s or shortly after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows had ended.”
Yann Castelnot (French), like most 13-year-old boys, imagined the days of the old Wild West where cowboys defeat the Indians. According to his mother, Annick Bouquet, “He believed, like many others, Indians were an extinct race until he came across a photo of an Indian decorated with war medals.” Over time, his curiosity - or perhaps cosmic intervention - brought him to the grave of Standing Buffalo, the grave that started his military research journey. Now, at thirty, he is president of Association de Recherché des Anciens Combattants Amérindiens (ARACA), an association that seeks to find Indians who fought for freedom in modern wars, especially the two world wars, provided several display panels showcasing maps, letters, and photographs of Indians who had enlisted in the wars for the event. More moving were the piles of personal folders collected by Castelnot and his organization from the First World War to our current day.
He says, “I have fond 85,655 names of Native veterans (69,056 USA; 9,274 Canada; 7,325 South America), including 19,509 documents containing photos, enlistment papers, and military files.” The per-capita death toll is also staggering.
Costelnot continues, “I have also collected 11,917 graves: 2,591 dead at war; 9,326 veterans dead.” One French observer, who wished to remain anonymous remarked, “Indian bodies were not sent back to the United States because they were considered forgotten bodies. They were savages and not people. The U.S. and Canada said—you can keep them.”
There is little information regarding Native American women who also fought and died in military action which suggests still more research needs to be done.
Charles Chibitti (Comanche Code Talker), who served in the Sixth Army Signal Company in the 4th Infantry Division, survived the Battle of Normandy and earned the European Theater of Operations Victory Medal with five Bronze Stars, gifted Yann his medal, before he died in 2005, for his tireless dedication in researching unknown Warriors, who now laid buried, with a name and with honor.
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.