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Native American relationships with 20th century American Conflicts. – Part 1

Updated: Jun 17

Over the last century America has been almost continuously involved in major conflicts across the globe. When these conflicts are portrayed to the public, the image presented is overwhelmingly one of white American soldiers. Often popular culture focuses on the Second World War, with a heavy focus on the European theatre of war, presented through the stories of white American soldiers in movies such as Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. What often occurs is the creation of a distorted image, if not a wholesale neglect of the involvement of American minority groups who also fought heroically and sacrificed their lives in fighting across all of America’s conflicts of the 20th century.

A posed shot of Chester Nez taken during World War II


One group who have served in the in conflicts within America for centuries, are the native Americans, the first Americans. Fighting alongside European colonial armies as they fought one another for ownership of the America’s. Then taking part in the American revolution against the British Empire. Before also then joining American armies during the Civil War. The Native American peoples are a population who, at the turn of the 20th century, were only a few short decades from the Indian wars of the late 19th century, (a war fought between non-native Americans against Native Americans).


They served in the armed forces of America in 20th century conflicts in disproportionate numbers compared to their fellow non-native American citizens. The First World War, for example, involved an estimated 30% of the total native American male population, who served in the armed forces during America’s involvement. By comparison, 15% of the white American male population fought. Some tribes even went so far as sending even more men to war such as the Osage at 39% and Quapaw at 54%.


During the Second World War (by 1942) 99% of all eligible native American men - healthy and aged 21 – 44 had voluntarily registered for the draft. It is maintained by war department officials that if the entire population had registered in the same proportions as native American volunteers that it would have made the selective service (being called to service through lottery, or “The Draft”) unnecessary. By the wars’ end over 44,500 native American’s had served as part of America’s armed forces representing over 10% of the entire Native American population, and represented over 33% of the eligible able-bodied Native American men between 18 and 50.


This trend continued into the Vietnam conflict with disproportionately large numbers of Native Americans volunteering at rates proportionate with their population in excess of their white American counterparts. Native American soldiers made up a total of 1.4% of American troops sent to Vietnam while only counting for 0.6% of the total American population.

Pfcs. Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo, both Navajo Code Talkers and cousins.


The reason behind such large numbers of volunteers has been generally explained as being a combination of the socioeconomic situation Native American people face on the reservations and in following the traditions of their families and wider communities. Over the last century the result of the forced assimilation of Native American people in the late 19th and 20th centuries led to generations of native American youths who felt a disconnect with their heritage and the traditions of their past. The warrior identity in these traditions became a strong motivator which gave new generations of native American’s a way of involving themselves with the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers before them.


In interviews with Sioux veterans about their service in the Vietnam War, John Little records one soldier as serving by way of living up to the traditional expectations of his family, but also a way of escaping the difficulties of living on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, with service in the armed forces being a way of generating a steady income and the ability to feed himself.

Native Americans adhere to a strong sense of national patriotism and familial/communal loyalty which has led to service in American conflicts. In reference to his service in World War One Joseph Cloud of Sisseton stated: “My nation gave liberally to the army. The men wanted to go; the women ordered us to go. No good Indian would run away from a fight. We knew that the life of American depended on its men, and we are Americans.”


However, not all Native Americans were motivated by patriotism. During the Second World War, Blackfeet Indians reportedly mocked the conscription bill, reportedly stating “Since when, has it been necessary for Blackfeet to draw lots to fight?”


Chuck Richards on his service in Vietnam states it “was not because of the American flag or none of that. It was to protect my people. That’s the reason I went.”

Ernie Wensaut, Machine Gunner 1st Infantry Division


In the follow up to this blog post I will look more into the post war experience of native American peoples and the struggles they shared with other American soldiers, but also the experiences which differed greatly from the returning soldiers in both white and other minority communities in America.


Part two is out now and you can find it right here:


https://www.thereturningsoldier.com/post/native-american-relationships-with-20th-century-american-conflicts-part-2


Reading List –

John A. Little, ‘Between Cultures: Sioux Warriors and the Vietnam War’, Great Plains Quarterly, Vol 35, No 4 (2015), pp. 357 – 375.

Russel Lawrence Barsh, ‘American Indians in the Great War’, Ethnohistory, Vol 38, no 3, (1991), pp. 276 – 303

Thomas D. Morgan, ‘Native Americans in World War 2’, Army History, No 35, (U 1995), pp. 22 – 27

Tom Holm, ‘PTSD in Native American Vietnam Veterans: A Reassessment’, Wicoza Sa Review, Vol 11, No 2, (1995), pp. 83 - 86

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