• Thomas Blackburn

Native American relationships with 20th century American Conflicts. – Part 2

In my last blog post regarding Native American relationships with 20th Century American conflicts I spoke about rate of recruitment and volunteer numbers over 3 of the main American conflicts of the 20th Century, those of the First World War, the Second World War, and Vietnam. I also spent some time looking at the attitudes that some Native American’s and their wider society had towards these conflicts.

Today I am going to look at the impact these wars had on Native American soldier at the time of conflict, and the view that Non-Native American began to take towards their Native American neighbours.

When looking at the service of Native American soldiers throughout the major conflicts of the 20th century a pattern begins to form over the 20th which is difficult if not impossible to ignore.

During the conflicts of World War 1, World War 2, and the Vietnam conflict a time period stretching from 1917 when America joined the Great War, to 1973 at the end of the Vietnam war, a time period covering multiple generations there are similar thoughts and ideas which have followed Native Americans through their service.

Propaganda throughout the first world war painted a stereotypical picture drawn from the popular imagination, fuelled by tales from the great American west. Tales of supernatural warriors whose ability to wage war and fight was unmatched. Throughout the conflict American newspapers printed stories selling to the idea of the Native American’s supposed instinctual bush craft, writings such as “Camouflage has little chance against them. The artificial tree trunk that houses a German sniper looks artificial to them, though it passes muster with every Caucasian comrade; bushes planted to hide a machine gun nest don’t ’grow right’ in their critical vision.” (Saratoga Sun 28 September 1918) began appearing with regularity in American newspapers of the time. One reversal in virtue was the ‘savagery’ with which non-Native Americans views Native American people. Where only decades early the Native American was written about in dark terms for their cruelty or barbarism in the First World War this was reversed.

Chocktaw Code Talkers during World War 1

Now American Newspapers began lauding Native American savagery and began favourably comparing Native Americans with the “Savage Tribes over in Germany.” It was written in the Baltimore Star was now Native Americans were “ready for the struggle with the Hun and an enemy which, for savagery, would put to shame even the cruellest Apache that ever tortured a foe.” What occurred throughout the First World War was a turn of events which took negative racial stereotypes and the racism that Native Americans faced at home and transformed it into propaganda and began turning these same racist ideas but morphing then into positive discrimination and propaganda throughout the war.

While most obvious in the language used at the time of the first world war, this discrimination continued throughout future conflicts. One pattern which emerged saw Native American soldiers be chosen for more dangerous missions more regularly. Many soldiers particularly in the Vietnam conflict felt that this lead to increased casualty rates in Native American soldiers, claiming that their White counterparts saw them as super soldiers, and found they were selected to work point more often than white soldiers with the belief that their ability to track and scout was somehow superior to that of their comrades.

Code Talkers during World War 2

In the First and Second world wars there was one unique talent for which Native Americans did undoubtedly excel. This are was in communication, and the ability to encode messages using their traditional languages for American Forces. First used in the First World war Native American soldiers were used to deliver messages over field telephones in the Choctaw language. By the time the Second World War arrive this had been expanded on by the 32nd Infantry Division who used the Native Americans from Michigan and Wisconsin to transmit information during manoeuvres in 1940. After this the U.S. Marine Corps recruited Native America’s to transmit messages using the Navajo language as a Battlefield Code throughout the Pacific conflict, the Japanese never broke the “code” and the Navajo Code Talkers became Americas most celebrated radio unit.

To conclude this part of my exploration into Native American service within American conflicts of the 20th century it becomes clear that the experiences are largely mixed, ranging from Native American Soldiers being highly praised by their officers both in conflict in training. To such a degree that during the First World War the U.S. army conducted tests on Native American’s eyesight and hearing, the conclusion of these tests according to a press report was that “their war superiority was not physiological but cultural.” In the Second World war Maj. Lee Gilstrop, responsible for training over 2000 Native American soldiers stated simply “The Native American is the best damn soldier in the Army.” Then leading to the negative experiences of both negative and positive discrimination, of expectations beyond what many Native American soldiers believed to be realistic, and ultimately leading to proportionally higher rates of combat deaths and injuries.

If you missed it you can check out part 1 here

Reading List –

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

Russel Lawrence Barsh, American Indians in the Great War, Ethnohistory, Vol 38, no 3, (Duke University Pressy, Summer 1991), pp. 276 – 303

Thomas D, Morgan, Native Americans in World War 2, Army History, Fall 1995, No 35, (U.S. Army Centre of Military History, Fall 1995), pp. 22 – 27

Tom Holm, PTSD in Native American Vietnam Veterans: A Reassessment, Wicoza Sa Review, Vol 11, No 2, (University of Minnesota Press, Autumn, 1995), pp. 83 – 86

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