A Historical Overview of Native Americans in the US Military

1944 photograph of Gen. MacArthur with 5 Native American Servicemembers

Native American involvement in US military operations is as old as the military itself. Native Americans were there when the history of the country began and have been involved from the time of General George Washington to today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the involvement was to support the United States’ cause, and sometimes it was in defiance—not only of the government but of other tribes.

Native Americans also have a higher percentage of enlisted servicemembers than any other ethnic group. In fact, as noted by War Department officials during WWII, the military wouldn’t have needed a draft if people had volunteered their services at the rate that American Indians did.

As a significant part of US military history, Native Americans have made many substantial contributions to our country. To honor their service, we want to make these contributions known.

17th Century

Revolutionary War

American Indian involvement in US affairs goes back to before there was even a United States. During the Revolutionary War, some tribes joined with US forces while others sided with the British based on promises to put an end to settlers encroaching on native land.

During this time, many military leaders recognized that American Indians had a lot of valuable skills. Even George Washington could see how they would be an asset when he said in 1778, “I think they can be made of excellent use, as scouts and light troops.”

As we progress through this post, we believe George Washington would be proud of all the contributions that Native Americans have made for the country.

18th Century

War of 1812

The War of 1812 saw tribes splitting their loyalties again between the United States and Great Britain.

For the most part, native tribes formed alliances with Britain because they saw their land being threatened because of the US wanting to expand their territories.

Native Americans played a key role in defending Canada, but the war was ultimately a big loss for them. They were never able to form external alliances again or prevent the American frontier from expanding.

However, two notable chiefs, Red Jacket and Farmer’s Brother, did join up with US forces. Prior to the War of 1812, both had already been honored by George Washington for their part in peace negotiations, which likely led to their decision to side with the US during the War of 1812.

Both Red Jacket and Farmer’s Brother played a pivotal role during the battles of Fort George and Chippewa by leading Seneca factions to assist US troops.

The Civil War

Native Americans played an integral part in the American Civil War, fighting for both the Confederates and the Union.

Their tracking skills proved to be a vital asset during the war, as did their knowledge of how to use the terrain as an advantage in battle. Additionally, many were great scouters. They could effectively locate and report on the enemy, which was vital because it determined the strength of the troops they were reporting on.

During this time, two Native Americans rose to become generals:

  1. Stand Watie (Cherokee) – A passionate Confederate Army general. He was the last Confederate general to surrender.
  2. Ely S. Parker (Seneca) – He joined the Union Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He also became Ulysses S. Grant’s military secretary and the first American Indian to be appointed as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Spanish-American War

Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders recruited Native Americans and went to Cuba as part of the Spanish-American War.

Additionally, four Native American women (Catholic sisters) from South Dakota worked as nurses for the War Department. They were first stationed in Jacksonville, FL, before transferring to Havana, Cuba.

20th & 21st Centuries

WWI

During this time (and prior), Native Americans were not considered US citizens. When Woodrow Wilson implemented the draft for World War I, this meant that Native Americans were not eligible to be drafted, but that did not stop them from joining.

About 12,000 Native Americans volunteered their service for the US military. Even American allies took notice. Four Native soldiers who served in the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division received the Croix de Guerre from France. This is a medal demonstrating heroic deeds.

Also during this time, 14 American Indian women volunteered their services for the Army Nurse Corps. Two of the 14 served overseas in France: Cora E. Sinnard (Oneida) and Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture (Mohawk).

WWII

After WWI, Native Americans were granted citizenship, which happened gradually:

  1. In 1919, US citizenship was granted to American Indian veterans if they wanted it.
  2. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, also called the Snyder Act, gave all American Indians citizenship.
  3. The Nationality Act of 1940 further defined what US citizenship entailed for Native Americans, as well as all other people who were born in the continental US and its territories. This act clearly defined that Native Americans were US citizens.

This meant that when the United States entered WWII, Native Americans were now eligible for the draft, but as history has shown us, this didn’t really matter. Native Americans had more servicemembers per capita than any other ethnic group and they served in both the European and Pacific regions.

There are two popular accounts that came out of WWII:

  1. The 6 Flag Raisers at Iwo Jima

    In this iconic photo, one of the six United States Marines is Ira Hayes (Pima). He is depicted on the far left. This brought Hayes a lot of unwanted attention and popularity.

    Unfortunately, Hayes descended into alcoholism and died on January 24, 1955. On February 2, 1955, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

  1. Code Talkers

    The code talkers played an integral role during the war. This project was actually put into play during WWI and was pioneered by the Cherokee and Choctaw. Choctaw was the primary language used during WWI.

    In WWII, code talkers were used in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. Navajo code talkers, in particular, played a significant role as part of US operations in the Pacific Theater.

    The code used the Navajo language and utilized poetic circumlocution (speech used to circle around the idea rather than stating it directly). For example, a dive bomber would be designated as the Navajo word chicken hawk and a grenade would be the Navajo word for potato.

    That way, even if someone did speak Navajo, they wouldn’t understand what was being communicated. Only 29 code talkers (all Marines) were part of this secretive mission and this precise code was extremely monumental for the United States’ success over Japan.

    The code was so secretive that, even after the war, the code talkers were not allowed to talk about it in case the United States needed it for the future (and they did in Korea and Vietnam). It went unrecognized for many years.

    Unfortunately, these men came back to a country that marginalized them. Their duty, sacrifice, and efforts in preserving the freedom of this country weren’t enough to gain respect during that time.

    Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo code talkers (died June 4, 2014), put his efforts into preserving the memory of the Navajo code talkers before his death. For further reading, there’s a nice tribute from the New York Times that talks about his life and his time in WWII.

    On June 18, 2002, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act. It recognized the important part that these soldiers played in “performing highly successful communications operations of a unique type that greatly assisted in saving countless lives and in hastening the end of World War I and World War II.”

Additionally, 800 brave Native American women volunteered their service for the war effort. They served in units such as the Army Corps, the Army Nurse Corps, and as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).

A few notable Native American servicewomen that served in WWII are:

  • Elva Tapedo Wale (Kiowa)
  • Corporal Bernice Firstshoot Bailey
  • Beatrice Coffey Thayer
  • Alida Whipple Fletcher (Sioux)

Korean War

Many Native American veterans continued their service during the Korean War. During this period, three notable Native Americans served and were Medal of Honor recipients and high-ranking officers:

  1. Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark (Cherokee) – He was the first Native American to graduate from the Naval Academy. As the vice admiral in charge the Navy’s 7th Fleet, he led what he termed “Cherokee Strikes,” which were behind-the-lines raids. These raids involved employing aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
  2. Major General Hal L. Muldrow (Choctaw) – He commanded the 45th Infantry Division’s artillery.
  3. Otwa Autry (Creek) – He became a brigadier general and led the 189th Field Artillery Battalion of the 45th Infantry Division.

Vietnam War

Despite the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, approximately 42,000 Native Americans served, and 90% of them were volunteers.

The Gulf War through Today

Since Vietnam, Native servicemembers have continued to serve in high numbers and have participated in the Gulf War, Iraqi Operation Freedom, and the conflicts in Afghanistan.

On a melancholy note, the first female soldier killed in Iraq was Native American. Lori Piestewa was a Hopi Indian and is believed to be the first Native American woman to die for her country. Her convoy was attacked in 2003 and she died from the injuries that she received from the attack.

Piestewa has been awarded the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal. Additionally, Piestewa Peak in Arizona is named in her honor.

In Recognition

Native servicemembers have served throughout all the military branches since the military began. The first Native American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor was a Pawnee member of the US Army’s Indian Scouts unit in 1869. Since then, 27 American Indian or Alaska Native servicemembers have received the Medal of Honor. Some of them saved their comrades and died as a result.

We want to thank all Native American veterans and current Native servicemembers for what you’ve done for this country. We honor all of our past and present veterans and our current servicemembers for the sacrifices they make.

If you feel like we missed an opportunity to recognize any Native American military contributions or individuals, please let us know in the comments! We want to hear all stories of our servicemembers.

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