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American Indian Patriotism
It's Always Been There
24 October 2006
By Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota) UTTC Dean of Academic and Vocational Services

Veteran's Day

      Over the past five years, since the events of September 11, 2001, national patriotism has been a topic of keen interest. It's fair to ask how patriotic Native Americans are. Here's what the record shows.

      American Indians have been active participants, serving with distinction in the country's military for more than 200 years. Indian Tribes were courted by England, France and eventually the thirteen American colonies in battles to control the Eastern seaboard. The Iroquois Confederacy played a strong role in shaping early America.

      According to the U.S. military, many Tribal people were involved with the War of 1812 and Civil War. Indian scouts were recruited for service during many 19th Century military conflicts that were caused when the federal government broke treaties and failed to fulfill obligations to Tribes. The U.S. Army established an Indian Scouts unit in 1866, and these members served through the turn of the century. Indian soldiers accompanied Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

      In the 20th century American Indian participation in the military increased. An estimated 12,000 Native American soldiers served during World War One. How ironic it was that most Indians were not recognized as American citizens at the time. That came with the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

      Between 1941 and 1945, a huge number of American Indian solders enlisted for World War Two. More than 44,000 Tribal members served around the world from among a Native American population of fewer than 350,000. On the home front, more than 40,000 American Indians left their reservations to work in ordinance depots such as Igloo, S.D. and in other military-related factories and installations. It is reported that American Indians invested more than $50 million in war bonds.

      During post WWII era, the federal government launched another attempt to assimilate American Indians with the termination and relocation programs. At the same time, the country became involved in the Korean conflict. Following the traditions and sacrifices of their ancestors, Indian soldiers again enlisted in the military. This participation carried over into the Vietnam War, with 42,000 Native Americans going into combat. Over 90 percent were volunteers.

      Near the end of the 20th Century, an estimated 190,000 American Indians were reported to be in military service. With each call to arms - Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Desert Storm - Tribal men and women responded with patriotism.

      In the 2002 movie "Windtalkers," a new perspective emerged about WW II. Awareness grew about the significant military role of the Dine, the Navajo code talkers. In 1942, the U.S. Marine Corps organized 420 Dine soldiers for code talking services. Their contributions, perhaps best known during the battle of Iwo Jima, caused Major Howard Conner to remark: "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken the island."

      According to historians Bernard Bossom and William C. Meadows, at least 17 Tribes contributed to audio communications in different campaigns. The U.S military used Tribal languages and native interpreters to establish codes, which allowed the secure delivery of battlefield instructions. The enemy was never able to break the Indian codes and decipher messages.

      Few people were aware that code talkers had been used during WW I. Bossom and Meadows reported that fifteen Comanche soldiers from the Oklahoma 36th Infantry Division were pressed into service on October 28, 1918. Their success encouraged the military to recruit and train code talkers from other Tribes including the Cheyenne, Cherokee, Osage, and Yankton Dakota (Sioux).

      New codes were established during WWII with the recruitment of soldiers from the Assiniboine, Cherokee, Choctaw, Kiowa, Pawnee, Lakota, Dakota, Menominee, Muscogee Creek and Seminole Tribes. At long last, many of the Indian code talkers have finally been recognized and honored for their contributions and sacrifices. In 1999, after 50 years, Charles Chibitty was recognized as the last surviving WWII Army Comanche code talker. He received the Knowlton award, created in 1995 by the Military Intelligence Corps Association to recognize significant contributions to military intelligence.

      In 2001, President Bush hosted a ceremony at the White House honoring the Navajo code talkers. He presented gold medals to John Brown, Chester Nez, Lloyd Oliver, Allen Dale June, and Joe Palmer, represented by his son, Kermit, as the last of the original code talkers.Stories about American Indian soldiers are extensive, profound, and inspiring. It's impossible to give due credit to all the Native Americans who served in the U.S. military. Pima soldier Ira Hayes was one of the iconic flag-raisers on Iwo Jima. Native women also served: Grace Thorpe, daughter of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe, and Catherine Black Elk, granddaughter of Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk, served as WACs during WWII. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Cheyenne, a U. S. Senator, enlisted in the Air Force and served during the Korean conflict. And the list goes on and on.

      Surely it can be seen that American Indians have strong cultural values that motivate their service. Even when government policies are working against them, Native people feel compelled to offer of themselves to protect their families and the country through military service.

      When the question comes up about Indian patriotism, the answer is: It's always been there.


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