• Thomas Blackburn

Native American relationships with 20th century American Conflicts. – Part 3

In this final blog post on this topic I will be looking at the impact that service as part of a wider American organisation had on Native American society over the course of the 20th century.

Native American services ended in much the same way as they did for any other American citizen, in the First and Second World wars these were celebratory returns of triumph over the central or axis powers, as for the Vietnam conflict this was a controversial war and so for all returning veterans they were faced with a very different reaction from their fellow citizens when they returned.

There were however some unique circumstances which surround the return of Native American Veterans. What was felt particularly strongly by Sioux veterans of the Vietnam war is that once they had made it back to the reservations where they had lived prior to the war, once they fought through the anti-war protestors and other activists, they found they were surrounded by friends and families who for the most part saw them not as soldiers returning from a complicated and controversial war, but was warriors returning to their people irrespective of where they were returning from.

Vietnam Veteran Thomas L. Roubideaux during interviews on his experience stated “Every time I came home, I was honoured. I’d make it through the hippies and everyone else, get to South Dakota and it was just like you’re coming into a veil. The folks would come over and shake hands and treat you well.”

Veterans upon returning from conflict zones throughout the 20th century were also honoured with traditional ceremonies, including honour songs, traditional dances, naming ceremonies, and the gifting of eagle feathers.

Eagle feathers in particular hold a special significance within Native American Cultures. Dennis Rucker a Sioux veteran explained “That eagle feather that you’re going to wear, is to tell people that you are a warrior. If you go to different tribes or a different place and you see that person with an eagle feather on. You ask him for help because that’s what he does, he helps people. It signifies that you are a warrior. If you know a stranger in the land, and you see a person have an eagle feather he will help you and won’t expect anything of it. So that’s what it signifies, to help people.”

There were also wider societal changes for Native American Veterans throughout the 20th century which were brought on as a direct result of Native American participation in the United States military.

World War One

Prior to the First World War Native Americans were not considered citizens of the United States of America. It took the first world war for attitudes towards Native American Citizenship to change. After the war a campaign was launched to bring Native American citizenship to congress, it was argued that:

“The Indian, though a man without a country, the Indian who has suffered a thousand wrongs-considered the white man's burden- and from the mountains, plains and divides the Indian threw himself into the struggle to help throttle the unthinkable tyranny of the Hun. The Indian helped to free Belgium, helped to free all the small nations, helped to give victory to the Stars and Stripes. The Indian went to France to help avenge the ravages of autocracy. Now, shall we not redeem ourselves by redeeming all the tribes?”

Thomas Bishop a Snohomish businessman went on to argue:

"Many of you have dwelt upon the idea that to give the Indian citizenship would be to have him robbed," Bishop added. "But his greatest fight now is protecting himself from those who are attempting to guard him"

U.S Congress went on the grant citizenship to all honourably discharged native American veterans in 1919, it took a further 5 years for citizenship to be granted to all Native Americans born in the United States and in 1924 Native Americans who for over 300 years had had their freedoms and homelands stripped from them by European colonialists and the U.S Government, had finally been given agency and a voice in the democracy within which they found themselves living…..,,,,,

World War Two

The integration of Native Americans into a wider American society continued with the end of the Second World War, more so than the First World War, the Second saw a more integrated service between Native American and white American soldiers. Over the course of the war Native American servicemen saw in close detail what a white American world looked like and after the war more Native Americans found themselves capable of leaving their reservations and forging a new path within Caucasian American society, moving to the cities and towns looking for a higher standard of living than the poverty still found rampant within the reservations. While there were draws which brought Native American people into white American world there were areas which repelled this integration.

There was the fear that by becoming one with white American society would mean a loss of their Native American heritage and identity and the weakening of tribal influence to name a few. What did happen though is that Native American people found they could aspire to live in two worlds while maintaining their identity.

Lt Col. Thomas D Morgan concludes his writing with the following:

“A good deal of credit must go to the Native Americans for their outstanding part in America’s victory in World War Two. They sacrificed more than most – both individually and as a group. They left the land they knew to travel to strange places, where people did not understand their ways. They had to forego the dances and rituals that were an important part of their life. They had to learn to work under non-Indian supervisors in situations wholly new to them. It was a tremendously difficult adjustment; more than for white American, which had known modern war and mobilisation before. But in the process, Native Americans became Indian-Americans, not just American Indians.”


While there had been improvements in Native American relationships with non-native Americans there was still much more room for improvement. During the conflict and in the aftermath of Vietnam Sioux Veteran Thomas L. Roubideaux found a greater feeling of acceptance and approval in the form of a simple acts of kindness. He notes that at Pierre airport there was a female employee who always had a hamburger and a glass of milk waiting for him when he returned home on leave.

On the night before his burial Frank Jealous of Him was honoured at the School of Mines in Rapid City in South Dakota, it is believed that this was the first time that a Native American had been honoured for service to his city. The benefits gained for service in the American military, commonly referred to the GI Bill was used by more Native American Veterans to enter educational institutions including colleges and universities leading to further acceptance in academic fields for Native American people across America.

In conclusion Native American service in 20th Century American conflicts is a story of a people who gave more than was asked of them in the name of their families, friends, communities, and perhaps more astonishingly to the idea of a country which in the first quarter of the century didn’t even consider them citizens.

It speaks volumes of the bravery of Native American peoples and the importance of their traditional values. Values which saw the Native American population find its feet within white America and changed the attitudes of white Americans towards Native American peoples both in legislature and in every day society.

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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