- By Darren Thompson
America’s first peoples have a long and storied history in all branches of the United States Military. Since the Revolutionary War, thousands of America’s first people have answered to calls of duty, service and sacrifice in numbers that surpass other groups of people.
Yet, the history of American Indian dedication to service is little known to the greater population.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, American Indian and Alaskan Native peoples have served and fought on behalf of the United States since the Revolutionary War.
It was American Indian friendship that aided in the United States’ founding.
In the beginning of the Revolutionary War, more tribes fought on the British side making their imminent defeat resulting in harsh consequences. Most tribes that sided with the British were either relocated or assimilated into American society.
It was during the Revolutionary War when Congress made its first treaty with American Indian people known as the Treaty of Fort Pitt or the Delaware Treaty. It was signed on September 17, 1778 at Fort Pitt, which is now the site of downtown Pittsburgh, and was the first written treaty between the United States and any American Indian tribe, in this case the Delaware.
The treaty was essentially a formal treaty of alliance.
The treaty gave the United States permission to travel through Delaware territory and called for the tribe to afford whatever aid they might require in their war against the British, including the use of Delaware warriors.
In the Civil War, about 20,000 American Indians fought on both sides. There were two American Indian Civil War generals: General Ely S. Parker and Stand Watie.
From 1862 to 1866, Stand Watie was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation allied with the Confederacy and Watie was the only American Indian to attain a general’s rank in the Civil War, Confederacy or Union. He raised the first Cherokee regiment of the Confederate Army—the Cherokee Mounted Rifles—and helped secure control of Indian Territory for the rebels early in the conflict.
Watie commanded the Confederate Indian cavalry of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, made up mostly of Cherokee, Muskogee and Seminole.
He was the last Confederate general in the battlefield to surrender at war's end.
General Ely Parker was a Seneca attorney, engineer, and tribal statesman. Parker was present at the Appomattox Courthouse when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union in April 1865. General George Armstrong Custer was present at the signing, but not the surrender.
The official surrender terms signed by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were drafted by Ely S. Parker, who was Grant’s personal military secretary and a Lieutenant Colonel at the time. He became friends with Grant after the Mexican-American War, and Grant secured an officer’s commission for him. Parker would eventually rise to the rank of brigadier general, but after the Civil War.
“We are all Americans,” General E. Lee has been reported to say when he greeted Ely Parker.
World War I
According to the Veterans Administration, more than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I, as either scouts or code-talkers.
Because American Indians weren’t considered American citizens at the time of World War I, they were told they were not citizens of the United States and couldn’t enlist. So, they volunteered and served as “code talkers” where they were attached to different units to communicate certain information using their own languages.
The government of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma maintains that Choctaw men were the first American Indian code talkers to serve in the US military. It is widely believed that the Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma who pioneered the use of Indigenous languages as military code.
The codes used during World War were unbreakable by opposing forces and proved an immeasurable asset in both World War I and II.
However, it was in 1919 that American Indian Veterans were granted citizenship at the passing of Public Law 66—75. Signed on November 6, 1919, PL 66—75 offered citizenship to all honorably discharged American Indian World War I Veterans.
Prior to World War I, American Indians weren’t considered American citizens until 1924, when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all American Indians born in the United States.
It was the selfless service and sacrifice by the thousands of American Indians that would gain the support by the government to grant them full U.S. citizenship. In an effort made by veterans of World War I, most American Indians who had not yet received U.S. citizenship received it under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
World War II
Approximately 25,000 American Indians served in the military during World War II. As in World War I, American Indian code talkers served during the war representing at least sixteen tribes.
Several notable veterans were awarded Medals of Honor for their courage and bravery including Jack C. Montgomery (Cherokee), Ernest Childers (Creek), Roy Harmon (Cherokee), Joseph R. Toahty (Pawnee), Ernest E. Evans (Cherokee and Creek), Ira H. Hayes (Pima), Pappy Boyington (Sioux), Van T. Barfoot (Choctaw), and John N. Reese, Jr. (Choctaw).
Another notable group of veterans during World War II is the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), more commonly known as the Eskimo Scouts. The ATG was a military reserve force in the US Army organized in 1942 in response to attacks on Pearl Harbor to play a defensive role for the entire coast of Alaska. 6,368 volunteers served without pay until 1947. They were from 107 communities throughout Alaska including Aleut, Athabaskan, Inupiaq, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Yupik, white, and most likely many others. It was the first time these groups were brought together, giving the ATG credit for achieving statehood in Alaska. The ATG successfully promoted racial integration in the US Army by proving the worth of American Indian soldiers with its military forces as much as the Navajo, Comanche and Choctaw code-talkers did elsewhere.
Two American Indian Veterans from World War II have Veterans Administration facilities named in their honor, Jack C. Montgomery and Ernest Childers. In 2006, the VA named its first facility in honor of an American Indian Veteran, Jack C. Montgomery Veteran’s Medical Center (VAMC). In 2007, the VA named its second facility the Ernest Childers Community Based Outpatient Clinic, in honor of Ernest Childers.
Post World War II
Since World War II, there have been an approximate total of 71,700 American Indian Veterans, not including Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn (OEF/OIF/OND) and operations after that.
About 29,700 American Indians served in the Korean Conflict and 42,000 serving in the Vietnam War, according to the VA. This does not include numbers in other conflicts
A notable veteran of the Korean Conflict is PFC Charles George (Cherokee) from Cherokee, North Carolina. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after he died of his wounds in Korea.
Another notable American Indian Veteran of the Korean Conflict is former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
First Sergeant Pascal Poolaw is perhaps the most decorated Native American to serve in the US Armed Forces with 42 total medals and citations. Among his medals are four Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. He also earned three Purple Hearts, one for each of the wars in which he fought, WW II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Private Lori Piestewa (Hopi), was the first woman soldier to die in Iraq and the first American Indian woman ever to die in combat on foreign soil. In 2003, Piestewa’s convoy was ambushed and she would die with nine other soldiers in the attack. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USGS) would later change the name of a well-known peak in Phoenix, Arizona from “Squaw’s Peak” to “Piestewa Peak” in 2008.
Piestewa’s sacrifice continues to inspire many American Indian women today.
The number of American Indian women in the U.S. Armed Forces is higher when compared to other groups of people. According to a special report by the VA, American Indian women veterans represent 10 percent of all American Indian veterans, a number that is higher than the general population.
In all the services, minority representation is higher among female recruits than among male recruits. When the draft ended in 1973, women represented just 2 percent of the enlisted forces and 8 percent of the officer corps. Today, those numbers are 16 percent and 19 percent, respectively, according to a report made by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
It wasn’t until 1919 did American Indian Veterans receive veteran’s benefits because they weren’t considered American citizens.
Since American Indians have become citizens, numbers of active American Indians in the armed forces have continued to rise. The sacrifices of veterans past have paved the path for not only current service members, but their relatives as well leading to citizenship, statehood, and the changing of geographical names throughout the country.
Today, our Nation acknowledges the vital part that American Indians have played by both men and women in protecting our borders and preserving our freedoms by the establishment of the National Native American Veterans Memorial at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American in Washington, D.C. When completed, it will be the first national landmark in Washington showcasing the contributions of America’s first warriors who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
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