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Indians in the Military


INDIANS IN THE MILITARY. Before the advent of whites in North America, Native American peoples engaged in various forms of organized violence, almost none of which the European colonists would have regarded as "true" war. Native Americans fought pitched battles that tested the agility, skills, and courage of their young men, and Native nations raided each other for goods, foodstuffs, religious objects, and captives. Wars made for territorial gain or to destroy entire societies were rare if not absent in precontact Native North America.

War in North America changed considerably after the European invasion. While the Europeans held an advantage in weapons technology in the form of muskets and cannon, Indian knowledge of the terrain gave the tribes great tactical advantages. Native Americans were also motivated: they were defending their homelands. European colonists soon recognized that they needed Native American allies, auxiliaries, and scouts to maintain their territorial claims and defend their trade routes.

In the colonial era, trade rivalry, new diseases, and warfare all contributed to the widespread disruption and displacement of numerous tribal societies. New alliances were forged, totally new Native groups appeared, new tribal nation-states emerged, and many Native American peoples became more thoroughly militarized than ever before. For a great many tribes, military participation became highly valued, even if it was in the service of the whites.

The United States followed in the tradition of the colonial powers. United States officials recruited Native American allies for war and sought to divide tribal alliances formed to oppose them. During the revolutionary war, the Continental Congress authorized George Washington to recruit 2,000 Native American warriors. The first ratified U.S.-Indian treaty was in effect a military alliance with the Delawares. After this pact, Native Americans began to serve with the U.S. armed forces in ever-increasing numbers. When in the early 1790s the federal government had two armies destroyed in a war against a tribal confederacy on the northwest frontier, it sent General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, accompanied by Choctaw scouts, to crush the tribes. Thereafter, Native American contingents fought in American campaigns in the War of 1812 and aided the United States against "rebellious" Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the Confederacy actively sought alliances with several Native nations, including the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory as well as the Comanches, Osages, and Quapaws. On the Union side, "loyal" Cherokees, Creeks, and others formed independent battalions that eventually assisted in retaking Indian Territory, a strategic area on the border of Arkansas and Texas. The Union also recruited a company of Chippewa sharpshooters who served in the siege of Petersburg and helped chase the Army of Northern Virginia to its final surrender. The Seneca general Ely S. Parker, later promoted to brigadier general, is remembered as the staff officer who drafted the terms of surrender at Appomattox. A Cherokee, Stand Watie, became the last Confederate general to surrender to the United States.

Following the Civil War, the primary military foe of the United States was the various Native nations located in the West. Once again American military leaders recognized that fighting Indians required the aid of other Indians. In 1866, Congress authorized the army to establish a special Indian scouting corps. Indian scouts served throughout the Indian wars of the latter half of the nineteenth century and gained an unparalleled reputation for bravery in action. The Indian scouting corps was not disbanded until the 1940s.

Eventually, Native Americans were fully integrated into the regular army divisions. In 1891, the War Department formed a few infantry and cavalry companies made up entirely of Native American personnel. The Indian companies were strictly segregated and commanded by white officers. This experiment did not last, however, and the all-Indian companies were disbanded in 1895. A few Native Americans served in some of the units in the Spanish-American War, most notably in Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Rider regiment. The Indian scouting corps was kept active, and General John J. Pershing took a contingent of Apache scouts with him during the American incursion into Mexico in 1916.

The U.S. entrance into World War I essentially changed the military outlook toward Native Americans. While the scouting corps remained, white political leaders insisted that Natives be fully integrated into the divisions that made up the American Expeditionary Forces. At the same time, Native Americans who had been made

U.S. citizens under the General Allotment Act were subject to the draft. About 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I, and a large number distinguished themselves in the trenches. Notably and perhaps prophetically, the army began using Choctaw and Cherokee speakers to send messages over telephone lines from the edge of no-man's-land to command posts in the rear. The Germans who tapped into these telephone lines could not under-stand what was being said, thus ensuring the security of secret transmissions.

In the course of World War II, about 44,000 Native Americans, now all citizens, joined or were drafted into the military services—a number far out of proportion to their relative population in the United States. Three Native Americans, Van Barfoot, Jack Montgomery, and Ernest Childers, won Medals of Honor for their valor and leadership against the Germans. Native Americans fought in every branch of the armed forces and in every theater of war. The Marine Corps recalled the use of Native American speakers to secure lines of communications during World War I and recruited a body of Navajos, who in turn created a code from their language that was never broken. The Navajo Code Talkers served in every marine campaign in the Pacific. The U.S. Army likewise recruited a group of Comanche speakers to create another code that was utilized in the European theater.

Native Americans in World War II contributed more than their linguistic knowledge. Because many whites believed Native American warriors possessed extraordinary abilities, Native American soldiers were often given dangerous military assignments. In Korea, where two more Native Americans earned Medals of Honor, and Vietnam, where 42,000 Native Americans served, Native Americans took part in patrols and ambushes and "walked point" to give the rest of their units advanced warning of enemy hiding places. In Vietnam, Indian soldiers and marines joined long-range reconnaissance teams and force reconnaissance battalions. Native Americans also participated in the U.S. incursions into Grenada and the Panama Canal Zone. Among the first soldiers killed during the Gulf War of 1991, where 3,000 Native Americans served, was an Apache soldier from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.


Bernstein, Alison R. 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, 1997.

Dunlay, Thomas W. Wolves for the Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Ferguson, R. Brian, and Neil L. Whitehead, eds. War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research Press, 1992.

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.

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


See alsoIndians in the Civil War ; Indians in the Revolution ; Warfare, Indian .

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