American Indians, World War I and World War II

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On the eve of World War I, white Americans doubted many things about Indians living in their midst—their loyalty to the United States, their viability as citizens, even their right to landholdings and reservations. But few Americans of any color doubted the adeptness of Indians as warriors. From colonial times, Indians proved capable in warfare; Indian troops served in both armies of the Civil War, and during the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the 1916 U.S. incursion into Mexico. Thus when the United States entered World War I in 1917, Indians naturally became one source of manpower for the American war machine. Having served well in one world war, Indians found themselves called to serve again when the United States entered World War II in 1941. Indian participation in these two wars helped to reshape tribal life and American society.

When Congress approved the Selective Service Act in May 1917, requiring all American males to register for the draft, a large percentage of American Indians did not even possess U.S. citizenship. Still, the law required all Native American males of military age to register, though only citizens could be drafted. In the end, 17,000 American Indians registered, and 6,500 draftees and 6,000 enlistees mustered into the U.S. military. Most of these troops served in integrated units and were part of every major battle on the Western Front. There, Indians often held dangerous positions like snipers and scouts, suffering battle death rates of 5 percent as compared to 1 percent for U.S. troops overall. The heroism displayed by these troops earned them citizenship in 1919, opening the door for 1924 legislation granting citizenship to all Indians.

After World War I, many non-Indian Americans, impressed with Indian soldiers and home front efforts, hoped that Indians would soon give up tribal identities and assimilate into the larger society. However, the war actually reinforced tribal identities for many of its participants. Many tribes sent their soldiers off with war dances and welcomed them home with time-honored cleansing rituals and victory dances. And, as veterans returned home, they struggled with the same economic inequalities that had existed before their departure. Although congressional granting of citizenship did not turn Indians into Americans, their new legal status did have implications for Indians in the next war.

The beginning of World War II in Europe in September 1940 prompted Congress that same month to pass the first peacetime draft in American history. As citizens, Indians were expected to register. Some argued exemption because they rejected U.S. citizenship, but after the legal ruling Ex Parte Green stated that neither tribal

membership nor rejection of citizenship excluded Indians from military service, opposition to the draft waned. By March 1941 over 7,500 American Indians had registered. By the end of World War II, tribal societies had provided 25,000 servicemen, 800 nurses to the WACS and WAVES, and thousands of dollars in bond purchases and donations. Over 1,250 Indians became casualties of war. Additionally, scores of Indians left reservations to become urban workers in the home front effort to win the war.

The Navajo and Comanche "code talkers" are the best known Indian soldiers. Starting in 1942, they used the Navajo language as an unbreakable military code. Reminiscent of Choctaw soldiers recruited in 1918 to work the Army's telephone service and confuse German intelligence during World War I, these code talkers gained distinction during World War II for their invaluable service. Eventually, the 382nd Platoon formed just for Navajo code talkers.

Returning home after years of war, Native American veterans of World War II found themselves confronted with a society that had reshaped itself in their absence. Before war, American Indian society had been isolated, but the money soldiers sent home transformed the reservations by making refrigerators, radios, heaters, and even phonographs fixtures in Indian life. Also, not all Indians who left in the war job exodus returned at war's end. Many instead chose to make cities their permanent homes, as did some veterans. The soldiers, too, had changed. Exposed to white culture and opportunities in the military, many wanted an education and better pay, and many more had adopted Christianity. Though political activism would be the hallmark of another generation, some veterans lobbied for increased voting rights or sought to change drinking laws that made alcohol unavailable to Indians. Although not drastic, World War II changes did draw more Indians into mainstream culture and bring parts of that culture into reservation life. Similarly, non-Indian Americans found Indian faces a more familiar part of their world, and later a more familiar part of their political life.

Neither of the world wars revolutionized the relationship between Indian and mainstream American cultures. But by ensuring Indian citizenship and exposing Indians to a larger world, both wars paved the way for increased pluralism on the reservation and in American communities. This legacy of contact would provide future generations of warriors with a foundation for more complex, and sometimes less peaceful, interactions.


Bernstein, Alison. American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Britten, Thomas A. American Indians in World War I: At Home and at War. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Franco, Jere' Bishop. Crossing the Pond: The Native American Effort in World War II. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1999.

Holm, Tom. Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Meadows, William C. The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Townsend, Kenneth. World War II and the American Indian. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Melinda Lee Pash

See also:Conscription, World War I; Conscription, World War II; War, Impact on Ethnic Groups.

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American Indians, World War I and World War II

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American Indians, World War I and World War II