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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Native American WWI Volunteers Not Forgotten: River City Memoirs
by Dave Engel - Wausau Daily Herald

They risked their lives fighting for a country that hadn't yet granted them citizenship.

Shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, Wisconsin Winnebagos (Ho Chunk) joined the 32nd "Red Arrow" Infantry Division at Camp Douglas, although they were exempt from selective service.

In July 1917, the Rapids Ah-dah-wa-gam chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution sent each of 23 new soldiers from the Grand Rapids Indian Agency district khaki "comfort bags" containing useful personal items.

"All of us Indians were in thanks to get the good things you have sent," wrote recruit James Brown.

"We drill at 7:30 in the morning to 10:30 and in the afternoon we only drill one hour and if we have any ball games we don't drill in the afternoon. We are having all kinds of fun.

"There are about 154 boys in our Co. There are about 15 Indian boys and the rest are white.

"We got a YMCA here and also a show tent where we see a show every night. We all can drill just as good as any body in the company now."

As the troops embarked for France, a story published in 1975 relates, a government official stood at the foot of the gangplank to inform American Indians they did not have to serve or go overseas. The Winnebago leader turned and said, in his language, "Does any one of you wear a skirt? If so, go home."

The Ah-da-wa-gam chapter provided a Service Flag to the Indian Agency here in December 1918, honoring three of the same Winnebagos who had received comfort bags and who had died or been killed. On June 12, 1919, two more gold stars signified two more deaths. Patriotism and good soldiering, said the accompanying statement, "place them in the front ranks of the American Expeditionary forces."

Of the 23 at Camp Douglas, these five had died:

  • Mike Standing Water, 19, the first Wisconsin Indian to die in the war, of pneumonia March 11, 1918, on the transport Leviathan on route to France, brought back at the request of his father, a chief, and buried with drumming, chants and military honors in Pine Grove's "Indian cemetery" at Mather, Wis.
  • Dewey Mike, 19, from wounds at Marne, France, August 30, 1918, buried at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Picardie, France, in a grave visited by his octogenarian mother in 1933.
  • Jesse Thompson, killed in action Oct. 10, 1918, a month before the Armistice, buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne, France.
  • Robert "Bob" Decorah, also "DeCorah," 24, killed in action Aug. 2, 1918.
  • Corp. Foster Decorah, 40-plus, killed in action the same day.

Foster Decorah was a character of note. A minor fur trader and "sharpshooter of renown," in 1907 the elder Decorah had killed ten wolves and collected $100 bounty.

At a "condition of Indian affairs hearings" in 1911, he told Wisconsin Senator and later presidential candidate Robert M. La Follette he once had worked in a flour mill for $1 a day but soon quit.

Then of Reedsburg, Decorah, father of two boys and a girl, said he ran an Indian camp, shooting gallery and sold beads as concessions in Illinois "picnic parks."

Liquor trouble brought Decorah into contact with federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, later to become the first U.S. Commissioner of Baseball.

In one of their several meetings, Landis suggested, "Let's you and I go on the water wagon for the rest of this term of court."

Decorah also appeared in the Landis court in 1914 when a bar owner in La Crosse sold him beer after he claimed to be Mexican. He had been acting as a government decoy.

A descendent of the "illustrious Chief Decorah," he presented a commanding figure when he appeared as a witness in another case, "wearing the khaki of a soldier with broad shoulders and graceful carriage."

A fellow member of the 32nd Division said that Decorah and his nephew Robert Decorah had fallen on the same field and that Decorah's son was also a member of the company.

"I had often watched the older go through bayonet practice. We taught our men to assume a ferocious expression in bayonet conflict and Foster Decorah's face was worth study at such times."

Foster Decorah is buried at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Picardie, France.

His son, Henry, died in 1993, at age 94, and is buried at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minn.

Dave Engel is a local historian and author of books in the "River City Memoirs" series. His columns are featured monthly in Daily Tribune Media.

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