Sunday, June 16, 2019

Celebrating Native Americans in the United States Military

After decades of broken promises and atrocities committed against their people, it makes us wonder sometimes as to why the Native Americans (especially the plains Indians) would want to serve in the military of the nation which severely oppressed so many of them.

But serve they did. And they served valiantly, and continue that tradition today.

Most of us remember the movie, “Windtalkers,” which depicted the degree of courage, honor, pride, and physical and mental toughness that was demonstrated by our Native American troops during WW-2. But their allegiance to America's causes began as far back as our Revolutionary War... Well sort of.

Pre-World War II

While there were some Native American tribes serving with the colonists, some served with the British who promised them their help to push back against the expansion of the settlers. And then again in the war of 1812, the Native Americans were pretty well divided as to who's side they were on.

During the Civil War, the Native Americans served valiantly for both sides. And in my opinion, the men of the Confederacy were just as much real Americans as those of the Union. So, I'd say that this was the first war where the Native Americans had fought wholly for American causes.

In The Spanish American War, Teddy Roosevelt didn't hesitate to recruit Native Americans into his famous fighting force called the Rough Riders when they went into battle in Cuba in 1898. And likewise, General John J. Pershing recognized the combat and scouting prowess of the Indians when they went against Poncho Villa in Mexico. But in the Mexican campaign, there were also four Native American Catholic Sisters from South Dakota who worked as nurses.

By the time that WW-1 erupted, more than 12,000 Native Americans stepped forward and volunteered to fight for the United States. Many of those troops were awarded high honors and medals, including France’s Croix de Guerre and the Church War Cross for courage. And what is interesting here is that when eight Choctow Indians who were assigned to a communications unit became surrounded by Germans, they were able to send tactical messages to our troops in their native language.

Yes. These were the first of the Code Talkers. Later, in WW-2, It would be members of the Navajo tribe who became so widely recognized. And also, as in the Mexican campaign, there were Indian women serving America in the Army Nurse Corps.

World War II

Native Americans had been granted citizenship by then, and were eligible for the draft. But the tribesmen did not wait for the draft. In record numbers, 44,500 signed up and served honorably in both the European and Pacific campaigns. No other ethnic group had a higher per-capita rate of participation in the war than our Native Americans. Which brings us again to the legend of the Navajo Code Talkers.

There were more than 400 Navajo Code Talkers deployed with the U.S. Marines throughout the Pacific. And as it was in WW-1 with the Germans, these Code talkers managed to stymie the Japanese who intercepted our U.S. military messages. The Navajo language was virtually impossible for our enemies to understand. But what some people are not aware of is the fact that likewise in the European campaign, seventeen Comanche Code Talkers served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and fought under brutal combat conditions as they faced the Germans. And in the same manner in which the Navajos fooled the Japanese in the Pacific, the Comanche Code Talkers prevented the Germans from interpreting U.S. messages.

One of the most iconic photos of a Native American in the service of our country is in the photo of the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, where Ira Hayes, a full blood Pima Indian is shown among those other brave and dedicated Marines.

Post World War II

In the Korean conflict, our Native Americans again answered the call with an estimated 10,000-15,000 men who voluntarily enlisted.

A massive number of Native Americans signed up for duty in Vietnam, which has been estimated to be over 50,000 men.

Then in 1991, 3,000 Native Americans answered the call for Operation Desert Storm (the Persian Gulf War).

In the post-911 era, Native Americans continued to serve in a higher percentage than the veterans of other ethnic groups. 18.6 percent vs. 14 percent, respectively.

And there are currently approximately 31,000 Native American men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces. A great number of them are deployed to combat duty.

In recognition of the courageous service of our Native Americans, The Smithsonian's National Museum of The American Indian has spearheaded a project, which has now been commissioned by congress, to build a museum on it's grounds in Washington, DC that will honor our American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian veterans.

It is great to see that this acknowledgment will finally be taking place. It is hoped that the anticipated millions of annual visitors to the museum will gain an insight as to the service and sacrifices made by our Native American citizens as they answered the call to serve our nation.

Happy Trails
Gary Miller

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