Role of Native Americans in Wartime
Today we’re going to cover the military service of Native Americans in the United States Army from the Spanish-American War of 1898 through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Along the way, we’ll look at the unique contribution made by Native Americans to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in the First World War. We should acknowledge that the Indian Wars, consisting of approximately 40 armed conflicts over the course of 300 years, were fought right up until 1924. However, the focus of this video will be on how Native Americans fought for the U.S. Army rather than against it.
By the late nineteenth century, after forcibly removing scores of tribes to accommodate western expansion, the U.S. government sought to assimilate Native Americans. Native American boarding schools were established to immerse children in Euro-American values. Students were forced to take Christian names, dress like Europeans, and were forbidden to use their own languages under threat of corporal punishment. The brutality and chauvinism of the system is best expressed by the words of Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of a school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania:
“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Despite these attempts to suppress native languages and culture, as well as a succession of broken treaties and other atrocities too numerous to catalog in one video, many Native Americans served with distinction in the Spanish-American War and World War One. The Native Americans have been used as scouts for as long as Europeans have been in the Americas. In 1866, Congress authorized the creation of the U.S. Army Indian Scouts, a unit of up to 1,000 Native American cavalrymen for combat and reconnaissance missions in the west against hostile tribes. The Scouts also accompanied John J. Pershing’s forces in the unsuccessful pursuit of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa from 1916-1917. Native Americans also served American military interests overseas.
On February 15th, 1898 the USS Maine exploded in the Havana harbor, killing 260 members of the crew. The circumstances of the Maine’s destruction remain a point of dispute to this very day but the incident provided a casus belli against Spain. At the time, Cuba was one of the few Spanish possessions remaining in the Americas and was in revolt against Spanish colonial rule. Under the provisions of the Monroe Doctrine, America’s standard foreign policy, Cuba fell within the self-appointed American sphere of influence, and events were closely monitored. War between Spain and the United States broke out in April. The U.S. navy’s superiority was such that its main challenge was not so much in defeating the Spanish fleet but in finding it.
Conversely, the U.S. Army was kept as small as possible in peacetime, so volunteers were called for to fill the ranks during times of war. One of the most famous units of the conflict, the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders, was the cavalry regiment in which Teddy Roosevelt served as second-in-command. The unit was an interesting mix of politically-connected college athletes, Texas Rangers, and Native Americans.
Believing Native Americans to be natural soldiers and brave warriors, Roosevelt sought volunteers from the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. One of the men who volunteered was Benjamin H. Colbert, a descendant of Chickasaw and Choctaw leaders. He was mentioned by name in Roosevelt’s account of the war and was cited for bravery in Cuba. Colbert kept a detailed diary of his time in the Rough Riders, and gave his reason for joining as a desire to represent his race and uphold a proud warrior tradition.
Some leaders supported aiding Cuban freedom fighters against Spain, but the war also drew criticism from Native American intellectuals who opposed the creation of an American empire.
The American entry into World War One also divided Native American opinion; the imposed drafting of men not considered citizens was an understandable source of resentment. However, there were some who willingly enlisted to fight.
Some Native Americans saw volunteering for service in the First World War as a way to secure better treatment from the U.S. government and protect interests at home. The question of citizenship was also still in the air at this point; about 40% of the population were still not considered citizens. Military service abroad and contributing to the war effort at home was seen as a path to citizenship and a way to be involved in the political process.
The United States declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917, nearly three years into the conflict. This declaration was joined by declarations of war by the Onondaga and Oneida nations. Around 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I, fighting as regular troops alongside white soldiers rather than as auxiliaries as they had in the past. Thousands were drafted, despite not being citizens, while at least 5,000 volunteered to serve. The 36th Division of the American Expeditionary Force alone had over 1,000 Native Americans in the ranks.
Subject to the pervasive stereotypes of the time regarding bravery and warrior prowess, Native Americans were assigned especially dangerous tasks in France, such as scouting and sniping, and suffered a much higher rate of casualties than the AEF as a result. The most notable contribution to the American war effort came from one of the very things the U.S. government had tried to eliminate: language.
Overhearing a conversation between two Choctaw soldiers, an American officer soon realized the military potential of a language so unknown to the Germans. Secure communication had been a major problem for the Allies throughout the war, as English was widely understood by the Germans and numerical codes were often broken. Working as codetalkers, Choctaw and Cherokee recruits helped the AEF maintain the element of surprise during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the summer of 1918. The Germans were never able to make much sense of the codes they intercepted near the end of the war.
You might be familiar with the 2002 film Windtalkers which tells the story of Navajo soldiers acting as radio operators in the Pacific theatre of World War II. The movie is based on the real actions of Native American radio operators during the war. Recruits from several tribes, not just the Navajo, made use of their languages to send secure transmissions on the battlefield. The Japanese were completely unable to decipher the transmissions they intercepted. Not so well known is the fact that the origins for this branch of military intelligence came from World War One.
Following the November Armistice, Native American veterans were granted citizenship in 1919 in recognition of their service during the Great War. This was followed in 1924 with the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to the remainder of the population. This bill did not have universal support among Native Americans; some, for example, were wary of losing tribal sovereignty. Further efforts to pursue Native American civil rights continued into the 20th century, with the Indian Civil Right Act passing in 1968. Many Native issues remain unresolved in the present, but that’s a subject for another day.
To sum it all up: Despite suffering so many injustices at home, Native Americans have fought for U.S. interests abroad throughout American history and continue to be represented in the U.S. Armed Forces today.
Before we go, here are a couple of review questions:
1. What role was typically assigned to Native American soldiers in the U.S. army?
- Manual laborers
- Field gunners
The answer is A, Scouts. Due to stereotypes of the time, they were often sent to do the more dangerous tasks of scouting and sniping.
2. What reason(s) did Native Americans give for volunteering to fight in World War I?
- Warrior tradition
- To secure rights at home
- All of these
The answer is D, all of these.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!