Native Americans have served with the U.S. armed forces as auxiliaries, allies, scouts, volunteers, and conscripts since the Revolutionary War, and Canadian First Peoples fought for Great Britain as early as the mid–eighteenth century. During both world wars, Native Americans and First Peoples served (and died) in numbers exceeding their relative populations and distinguished themselves on battlefields from the Argonne Forest to Iwo Jima. For example, more than 4,000 First Peoples enlisted in World War I, including every eligible man in Saskatchewan's File Hill community. Native North Americans' record of service extended to the hills of Korea, the rain forests of Vietnam, and the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991 and 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The reasons why Native North Americans enter the armed forces are many and complex. They serve to earn a guaranteed wage or perhaps because they believe that tribal treaty agreements obligate them to volunteer for military duty. For some, military service was a natural step from militarized Indian boarding schools. For Mike Mountain Horse of the Blood Band of Alberta, and no doubt many others, fighting in World War I was proof that the warrior tradition had not been suppressed by reservation life.
Whatever their reasons for entering the military, those who returned had to face challenging problems of readjustment to civilian life. Information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and statistical data from the Bureau of the Census reveal that by 1980 there were more than 159,000 Native Americans eligible to receive veteran's benefits. The majority of these veterans came from the Great Plains. Many of them rarely used their hardearned benefits because of the distances involved in traveling from reservations to va hospitals, benefits offices, and veterans' outreach clinics.
Adjustment to civilian life was much more than taking advantage of veteran's benefits, however. Returning veterans had to readjust emotionally, economically, and culturally. The adjustment was eased for some by strong family relationships and by ceremonies designed to cleanse the veteran of his or her war-related trauma or to honor their sacrifices. Economic adjustment was difficult. Many veterans of the wars of the twentieth century returned to Plains communities, whether urban or reservation, that were among the poorest in the nation, with few opportunities for work. Still, these veterans revived warrior societies, took part in time-honored ceremonies related to warfare, and founded all-Indian vfw and American Legion posts.
Nowhere were these revivals, ceremonies, and organizations as important as in the Great Plains. The Kiowas, for example, rejuvenated the Gourd Dance, a warriors' society ceremony, and the Black Leggings, another warrior sodality, following World War II. Several other societies were revived among the Cheyennes, Lakotas, Arapahos, Pawnees, and Osages. These revivals, initiated and kept alive largely by veterans, have become an important part of the post–World War II movement to preserve tribal cultures.
Militarization quite often has an effect of democratizing societies. It was clear, for example, that after World Wars I and II Native North American veterans were prepared to demand their full rights of citizenship. Their service in the military had, in effect, legitimized their quest for better treatment. A great number of veterans of World War II became tribal officials almost immediately following the conflict. One, a Lakota from the Lower Brule Agency of South Dakota, was elected tribal chairman at the young age of nineteen. In 1945, all the tribal council members of Crow Creek Reservation (also in South Dakota) were veterans. By 1946 more than one-third of all tribes in the United States had veterans serving as tribal council members. Numerous others went on to lead the fight against the federal policy of termination and later to promote self-determination and tribal self-sufficiency.
Tom HolmUniversity of Arizona
Bernstein, Alison R. American Indians and World War II. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Gaffen, Fred. Forgotten Soldiers. Penticton, British Columbia: Theytus Books Ltd., 1985.
Holm, Tom. Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.