Members of the Ton-Kon-Gah, or Kiowa Black Leggings Society, discuss what it means to be a veteran before the start of a ceremony in memory of those who fought. The tipi depicts battles in which Kiowas participated and lists the names of all Kiowas killed in combat since World War II. Near Anadarko, Oklahoma, 2014. Photo by Nicole Tung.
In December 2013 the U.S. Congress charged the National Museum of the American with creating a memorial on its grounds to give all Americans the opportunity “to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans” in our nation’s Armed Forces. “The significance of such a memorial on the National Mall is obvious,” declares museum director Kevin Gover, “and we welcome the opportunity to accord these veterans the honor they have earned. The project will give affirmation to the patriotic contributions of Native American veterans by the federal government as a whole and by the Smithsonian Institution in particular. For these reasons the National Museum of the American Indian will do as good a job on the National Native American Veterans Memorial as it deserves.”
Another key question, then, is why would American Indians serve a nation that suppressed their cultures and took away their own freedoms and homelands? The response by Jeffrey Begay, a Navajo veteran, reflects the sentiments of all Native veterans: “We serve this country because it’s our land. We have a sacred purpose to protect this place.”
For whatever reason, Native Americans not only serve, they do so at a higher rate in proportion to their population than any other ethnic group. They served in high numbers even before the United States passed the American Indian Citizenship Act in 1924: According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, during World War I 10,000 Native Americans served in the Army and 2,000 in the Navy; three out of four were volunteers.
Left: Choctaw telephone squad, returned from fighting in World War I. Camp Merritt, New Jersey, June 7, 1919. From left: Corporal Solomon B. Louis, Private Mitchell Bobb, Corporal Calvin Wilson, Corporal James Edwards, Private George Davenport, Captain E. H. Horner. Photo by Dr. Joseph K. Dixon. Courtesy Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Indiana University.
Right: Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, 1919. Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture (Six Nations of the Grand River, 1890–1996) was the first Native Canadian registered nurse. Rejected from Canadian nursing schools because of her Native heritage, she sought training in the United States. In 1917, she volunteered for the U.S. Medical Corps and served in a hospital in France. She was one of 14 Native Canadian women who served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War I. Courtesy John Moses.
World War II witnessed an even more astonishing wave of American Indian patriotism. In fact, had all eligible non-Indian males in the United States enlisted in the same proportion as tribal people, there would have been no need for the Selective Service System. The Department of Defense later reported that, exclusive of officers, 24,521 reservation and 20,000 non-reservation Indians saw military service during the war. Native Hawaiians also responded in overwhelming numbers after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as did Alaska Natives, who were the first ashore on each island that Allied forces occupied during the Aleutian Campaign. All told, ten percent of the country’s American Indian and Alaska Native population of 350,000—including nearly 800 women—saw active duty during World War II. This represented one-third of all able-bodied Indian men from 18 to 50 years of age. In some tribes, the percentage of men in the military reached as high as 70 percent. For their service they earned at least 71 Air Medals, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, and 5 Medals of Honor.
General Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in the South Pacific, on an inspection trip of American battlefronts, late 1943. From left: Staff Sergeant Virgil Brown (Pima), First Sergeant Virgil F. Howell (Pawnee), Staff Sergeant Alvin J. Vilcan (Chitimacha), General MacArthur, Sergeant Byron L. Tsingine (Diné [Navajo]), Sergeant Larry Dekin (Diné [Navajo]). U.S. Army Signal Corps.
This exemplary record of military service continues to this day. American Indians, both men and women, have served with honor, distinction, and in overwhelming numbers on each of our nation’s battlefields since World War II. Although the United States has given scant heed to their remarkable contribution to our nation’s safety and well-being, Native servicemen and women are among the most honored members of their communities across Indian Country. They are honored for their service by their families and their tribes. They are honored before going into service. They are honored upon their return. Honor songs are composed and sung in their memory. The most visible expression of that honor is at powwows, where veterans are asked to lead the Grand Entry, to carry the tribal and U.S. flags, and to dance.
The Native American Women Warriors lead the grand entry during a powwow in Pueblo, Colorado, June 14, 2014. From left: Sergeant First Class Mitchelene BigMan (Apsáalooke [Crow]/Hidatsa), Sergeant Lisa Marshall (Cheyenne River Sioux), Specialist Krissy Quinones (Apsáalooke [Crow]), and Captain Calley Cloud (Apsáalooke [Crow]), with Tia Cyrus (Apsáalooke [Crow]) behind them. The organization, founded by Mitchelene BigMan in 2012, raises awareness about Native American women veterans and provides support services in health, employment, and education. Photo by Nicole Tung.
Although not all tribes approve of warfare, they all honor their soldiers. For some, especially the Pueblo peoples of the southwest, there is concern about being a soldier and the possibility of taking another human’s life. Nonetheless, as one Hopi leader explained, “The fact that American Indians are fighting for this great country of ours needs to be recognized. We may have been a conquered people, but we were not a defeated people, and our warriors will always rise to the call of battle.” One of those warriors was Private First Class Lori Ann Piestewa, who died in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A member of the Hopi Tribe from Tuba City, Arizona, Private Piestewa is believed to be the first Native American woman to die fighting in our nation’s armed forces.
Another unfortunate distinction for Native American warriors was the death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a Cherokee from Roland, Oklahoma. Sergeant Wheeler is the first known U.S. casualty in the fight against ISIS. A member of the Army’s elite Delta Force and the recipient of 11 Bronze Stars during his military career, he died October 22, 2015, while attempting to rescue prisoners near Hawija in Northern Iraq. Cherokee Principal Chief Bill John Baker eloquently stated, “Like so many of our Cherokee warriors, Joshua died serving our great country. We are forever indebted to him for his bravery and willingness to accept the most dangerous missions. Joshua is a true American hero, and we will always honor his life and sacrifices at the Cherokee Nation.”
United States senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, at left in regalia, and Daniel K. Inouye stand with members of the Vietnam Era Veterans Inter-Tribal Association during the groundbreaking ceremonies for the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington, D.C., September 28, 1999. Campbell (Northern Cheyenne, b. 1933), a Korean War veteran, is one of the few American Indians to ever serve in Congress. For his actions during World War II, Inouye (1924–2012) received more than 15 medals and citations, most notably the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. MARIO TAMA / AFP / Getty Images.
Working together with the National Congress of American Indians and other American Indian groups, the National Museum of the American Indian has begun preliminary plans to construct the National Native American Veterans Memorial in the next five years and has formed an Advisory Committee chaired by Chickasaw Nation Lieutenant Governor Jefferson Keel and former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of the Northern Cheyenne, who affirms: “I am American and I am Indian and I am a vet. I believe I was compelled to serve to honor the warrior tradition which is inherent to most Native American societies—the pillars of strength, honor, pride, devotion, and wisdom.”
In the months ahead, this blog will feature stories from our Native veterans about their service and provide updates on the progress of the memorial project, including the status of the funding goal of $15 million.
—Herman J. Viola
Senior advisor, National Native American Veterans Memorial
Dr. Herman J. Viola is a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A specialist on the history of the American West, he served as director of the Museum's National Anthropological Archives in addition to organizing the major exhibitions Magnificent Voyagers and Seeds of Change. His many books include Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism. Before joining the staff of the Smithsonian, Dr. Viola was an archivist at the National Archives of the United States.