Native Americans in the Military

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Native Americans in the Military. From the Revolutionary War to the present, American Indians have served in the U.S. military in a variety of roles. During the Revolutionary War, Native Americans sought initially to remain neutral, but eventually most sided with the British, who seemed less expansionist. Nevertheless, Indians in south and central New England ultimately rallied to the American cause against the British and their Tory allies. Primarily these were alliances, but sometimes Indians, particularly religiously converted Indians, served as individuals in the American forces. Indians also fought on both sides in the War of 1812; in the South, the Choctaw and Cherokee fought alongside Andrew Jackson, while the Creek divided their allegiance.

During the Civil War, Indians were first recruited by the Confederacy, which in 1861 raised four regiments from among the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to drive neutrals across the border into Kansas. The most famous Confederate Indian, Col. Stand Watie, led his Cherokee Mounted Rifles in capturing Union army artillery batteries in the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in 1862. However, hundreds of these Indians eventually went over to the Union side, and an all‐Indian brigade was organized in the Indian Territory. Aside from these Indian units with their Indian officers, the most famous Indian to serve in the war was the Seneca Ely S. Parker, who rose to the rank of general and served as secretary to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

In the thirty years of Plains Indians Wars across the Great Plains from 1860 to 1890, members of certain tribes, especially the Crow and Pawnee, fought alongside regular army soldiers, black and white, against their traditional tribal enemies, especially the Lakota Sioux, helping the army wipe out tribal resistance to the encroaching settlement. During the postwar reorganization of the U.S. Army in 1866, Congress authorized the enlistment of up to 1,000 Indians as “scouts,” making permanent a previously informal policy. The Indian Scouts, who may have reached as many as 1,500 in some decades, won high praise from generals like George Crook and Nelson A. Miles for their horsemanship, tracking, and fighting ability. An experiment begun in 1890 by Secretary of War Redfield Proctor and Gen. John Schofield to add all‐Indian companies, under white officers, in each of the western regiments, was abandoned by 1897.

In the twentieth century, Indians, who participated in all the major U.S. military conflicts, would serve as individuals, not in Native American units. In World War I, perhaps as many of one‐half of the Native American population were not U.S. citizens and were not eligible for the draft. Volunteer service was rewarded with U.S. citizenship. Including draftees and volunteers, some 10,000 Indians served in World War I. The service of these Indians contributed to the decision of Congress in 1924 to grant U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans.

In World War II, some 25,000 Indians served in the military, up from the 4,000 who had been in the military in 1940 before wartime mobilization. Their participation marked a turning point in the relations of Indians with the larger American society. It produced the largest single exodus of Indian males from the reservations and allowed them to compete in an arena where the fighting ability of those from tribes with strong warrior traditions inspired respect among the whites with whom they served. (Indians did not usually serve in racially segregated units as did African Americans.)

Though the number of Indians in the Marine Corps never exceeded 800, their experience certainly obtained the most publicity but in many ways also reflected Indian experiences in other services. One exception to integration was the Navajo Code Talkers communication units, which worked behind enemy lines in the Pacific Theater and sent radio messages on enemy troop maneuvers in Navajo language, thus avoiding the need for mechanical decoding equipment while baffling the Japanese. From these units came several postwar tribal and national Indian leaders such as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council Peter MacDonald.

It was an Indian Marine, Ira Hayes, a full‐blooded member of the small Pima tribe in Arizona, who emerged as the most famous Indian of the war. One of the six Marines and Navy Corpsmen who were photographed raising the flag atop Mt. Suribachi after the Battle of Iwo Jima, Hayes became a special celebrity used to demonstrate wartime unity. He struggled for the rest of his life with that notoriety, and finally died, destitute and suffering from alcoholism, at the age of thirty‐three in 1955.

Military service during World War II did more than provide an arena where Indians could perform as equals. For the first time, thousands of young Indian men and women earned a decent wage. The average Indian's income increased two and a half times, to $2,500, between 1940 and 1944. Thousands married non‐Indians, converted to Christianity, and relocated off the reservations after the war.

In the immediate postwar years, many of the Indian veterans benefitted from the G.I. Bill. Some took a lead in battling for full civil rights and a better life. In 1947, they led a successful campaign for the vote in Arizona and New Mexico. Joseph Garry, an ex‐Marine, chair of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council in Idaho and of the National Congress of American Indians, headed a fight in the early 1950s against assimilationist federal efforts to liquidate reservations and divide tribal assets.

Although no firm figures exist, estimates are that between 10,000 and 15,000 Native Americans served in the Korean War and more then 42,000 served in the Vietnam War. The conflict in Southeast Asia led many Indian Vietnam veterans to begin to reexamine their situation in American society. Consequently, many joined with the most traditional tribal elders in attempts to revitalize indigenous warrior societies. Moreover, a number of disillusioned veterans became leaders of militant Indian rights organizations, such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the mid‐1970s.

In the 1990s, about 10,000 Indians were serving in the All‐Volunteer Army, which revised many of its policies to accommodate Indian traditions and religious customs. Estimates from the Veterans Administration and the Census Bureau suggest that in the 1990s there were 160,000 living Indian veterans. This represented nearly 10 percent of all living Indians—a proportion triple that of the non‐Indian population—and confirms once again that Native Americans play an important role in the U.S. military.
[See also Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations with; Native American Wars: Wars Among Native Americans; World War I: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Thomas W. Dunlay , Wolves for the Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–90, 1982.
Robert Wooster , The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1988.
Alison R. Bernstein , American Indians and World War Two: Towards a New Era in Indian Affairs, 1991.
Annie Heloise Abel , The American Indian in the Civil War, 1862–1865, 1992.
Colin G. Calloway , The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities, 1995.

Alison R. Bernstein

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Native Americans in the Military

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Native Americans in the Military