Why do they serve?
The answer is grounded in honor and love for their homeland
On his last day of service
in Vietnam in 1963, Harvey Pratt (Cheyenne and Arapaho) poses
in Da Nang carrying his rappelling rope that he used to descend
from helicopters to clear landing fields. Pratt is the designer
of the National Native Americans Veterans Memorial. (Photograph
by Ranny Pratt, courtesy of Harvey Pratt)
Nurse Charlotte Edith
Anderson Monture (Six Nations of the Grand River) volunteered
for the U.S. Medical Corps and served in a hospital in France
during World War I, treating soldiers who had been gassed
Sergeants Sam Stitt (Choctaw)
and Chuck Boers (Lipan Apache) pose next to their artwork
in An Najaf, Iraq.
What has compelled so many thousands of American Indians, Alaskan
Natives and Native Hawaiians to serve in the U.S. military? It's
a question the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian
aims to answer with a new book and exhibition devoted to the subject,
launching today, November 11, Veteran's Day.
Much of what they document in Why
We Serve, Native Americans in the United States Armed Forcesa
240-page book that synthesizes established and novel scholarshipmay
come as a surprise to non-Natives. "The history of Native American
service has always been viewed in a reductionist way by the military
and by non-Native American society," write authors Alexandra Harris
and Mark Hirsch, senior editor and historian, respectively, at the
museum. Natives Americans are 'great warriors.' And yet, "not every
tribe had a so-called warrior tradition," they write, "many have
had distinctly pacific practices, and most balanced warfare with
traditions of diplomacy and peace."
Native service presents a paradox to non-Natives. Why would they
fight for America, which has a long history of colonizing, massacring
and breaking treaty promises? It is a fraught history, Hirsch says.
"Given that history, why is it that we have this remarkable legacy
of Native American military service," he adds.
The museum's director Kevin
Gover (Pawnee) says that Natives seem to spend little time contemplating
this paradox. But in retrospect, they will say "this land is still
"They are acknowledging the mistreatment their tribes have suffered
at the hands of the United States, yet they still imagine a different
and better tribal life in the future," says Gover. They are optimistic
that the U.S. will honor sovereignty, which may be why so many cultural
celebrations incorporate the American flag, he says.
"This is a deep patriotism, a belief that, despite all that has
happened, the United States can be better, and we want to be part
of that," says Gover.
It has been a long-held view that Native Americans have served
at a higher rate in proportion to their population than any other
racial or ethnic group. Harris says that can't be proven true or
false, in part because the U.S. military itself does not keep accurate
tallies. "Demographic data about the ethnicity of American servicemen
and women has historically been imprecise, and the number of Native
Americans who served in the military are, for the most part, estimates,"
according to Harris.
Yet Native Americansa group that includes American Indians,
Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiianshave served in U.S. conflicts
since colonial times. Tales of individual soldiers and units have
long been known to historians, the military and families. Harris
says "ethnicity in the military has always been muddy." Native people
in the South were often lumped in with "colored" units. And, when
Service Act was passed in 1917, which led to the draft, it was
unclear to the military how to handle enlistment of American Indians
who were not U.S. citizensabout a third of the Indian population
at the time.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell
(Northern Cheyenne) shares a laugh with a young South Korean
man during his service in the U.S. Air Force in the Korean
War. Campbell later served in both the U.S. Senate and House
During the Vietnam War, for example, the military did not use the
ethnic category "American Indian." Recruiters often used other descriptions,
including "Mongolian," "Negro," "Latin" or "Spanish," with some
Native Americans also being described as "Caucasian." But Harris
and Hirsch, who worked to tease out historical ethnic data from
the U.S. Defense Department and other sources, estimate that 1.4
percent of all troops in Vietnam were American Indians, at a time
when they represented 0.6 percent of the U.S. population.
The scholars estimate that up to a quarter of adult American Indian
men served in World War I. During World War II, 44,000 served, with
another 800 American Indian women working in various capacities.
Some 10,000 served in Korea and approximately 42,000 in Vietnam.
Currently, American Indian and Alaska Natives are lumped into a
single choice for military personnel who choose to identify an ethnicity.
If they choose more than one, they are counted as "other" or "multi-racial."
As hard as the military makes it to determine who is serving, it
still appears that at least 20,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives
are serving, according to the latest data, and that Pacific Islanders
serve at the highest rate, around three percent of their population.
The lack of solid numbers should not "obscure the bigger picture
that Native Americans have demonstratedand continue to demonstratean
abiding devotion to military service," writes Harris.
John William Gear, also
known as Chief Push-ma-ta-ha, (Choctaw) and his warriors joined
forces under the command of Gen. Andrew Jackson to defeat
the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
was also known as Curly or Shi-Shia and was one of six Crow
scouts assigned to Lt. Col. George A. Custer's command of
the U.S. Seventh Cavalry.
Seaman Carlton H. West
(Wampanoag) served in the Coast Guard during World War I and
William Pollock (Pawnee) was one of Theodore Roosevelt's most
respected Rough Riders.
Debunking the Warrior Myth
As in other communities, military service is viewed as an honorable
tradition by many Native families and tribes. And Native people
join for the same reasons as anyone else, say Harris and Hirsch,
"to learn a trade, get an education, experience the thrill of piloting
a jet, explore new life horizons, strike a blow for gender equality."
It's also a way out of desperate poverty.
The history of service for many Indigenous people is tied to their
love of homelandwhich, after all, was theirs long before colonists
ever appeared. Some Natives also believe it is their duty to defend
America as a manifestation of fulfilling treaty obligations.
For Native Hawaiians, military service fits into the traditional
concept of alohawhich includes mutual support and mutual
cooperation, Staff Sergeant Thomas Kaulukukui told Harris. His father
and 11 siblings served during World War II, and he was drafted to
fight in Vietnam. "We must serve when needed," Kaulukukui says.
A Vietnam veteran said that even though the U.S. had broken its
treaty promises, "we are more honorable than that. [We] honor our
commitments, always have and always will."
And while warrior traditions play a role, it is not, for many Indigenous
peoples, the primary reason for military service.
"Native people as a whole have been stereotyped throughout history,"
Harris says. They are typically viewed as having innate warrior
skills. "It seems on the surface that this would be a positive stereotype,"something
that wouldn't necessarily be harmful, she says. "But the idea that
Native people have some inborn talent at tracking, scouting, martial
skills emerges as the military placing them in the most dangerous
roles," she says.
That has included having them act as pointmaking them the
first people to engage with the enemy.
Some tribessuch as the Kiowa and other Great Plains tribeshave
a warrior tradition. But "not all tribes do," says Harris. "Some
tribes have pacifist traditions that they still adhere to today,"
she says. Traditions most often are about a balance between war
"Even for those tribes that had warrior traditions there were these
countervailing, very, very strong traditions of peace and diplomacy,"
Why We Serve seeks to challenge stereotypes and highlight the unique
traditions that Indigenous people bring to their military service,
such as protection and healing ceremonies, and cleansing after a
return from battle.
The Warrior Paradox
Still, for some Native Americans, joining the U.S. military gave
them an opportunity to continue a warrior tradition, especially
during the Civil War and the late 19th century, when the U.S. government
was bent on assimilating or exterminating American Indians.
Native Americans were enlistedand given military payas
scouts to help find tribes that were doing their best to defend
themselves against encroaching settlers. The U.S. Army believed
that having scouts from the same or related tribe would destroy
morale and facilitate surrender.
Sometimes Indians worked as a type of hired contractor. "They were
eager to wage war against a common enemy," say Hirsch and Harris.
Whites were powerful allies. In 1876, Crow and Shoshone men went
to battle with U.S. General George Crook against the Siouxa
traditional enemy. Osage led U.S. military expeditions against the
Comanche and Kiowa.
Thus, serving as a scout was a means for continuing a way of life
when the U.S. government was trying to stamp out their traditions,
says Hirsch. But some may also have viewed their service as a tactic
for preventing the Army from wiping out their people.
Two scouts may have convinced Geronimo,
their fellow Chiricahua Apache, to surrender in 1886. These scouts
believed that if Geronimo stayed on the run, periodically raiding,
that it would lead to the end of their people, says Hirsch. "I don't
think they were trying to sell out their own peopleI think
they were trying to save them," he says. Unfortunately, but not
surprisingly, after the surrender, the U.S. government forcibly
removed the Chiricahua to internment camps in Florida and Alabama.
The federal government outlawed Native American traditions as part
of its assimilationist push. But military service afforded Indigenous
people a way to covertly or even overtly get back to some of those
The large number of Native people serving during World War II lead
to a resurgence of tribal practicessuch as protection ceremonies,
prayer vigils and carrying of tribal medicine into battle. The Lakota
from the Standing Rock Reservation held the first Sun Dance in 52
years, to pray for the destruction of German and Japanese soldiers
and the safe return of 2,000 of their soldiers.
Research suggests that Native Vietnam veterans may have better
coped with anger, depression and post-traumatic stress thanks to
"tribal rituals connected with warfare and/or ceremonies of healing."
Going away and coming home ceremonies are still practiced, including
honoring ceremonies and victory dances, say Harris and Hirsch. For
Native Hawaiians traditions that can include hula, surfing, art
and songs to commemorate various battles can help with healing and
Powwow celebrations, social dances and other veterans' eventsheld
year-round in Indian Country and in cities and towns across the
nationbroaden the support. But, as minorities, Indigenous
peoples have unique struggles.
"We wear the badge of our service proudly, and our veterans suffer
the burdens of war with disproportionate rates of homelessness,
behavioral health struggles and lack of access to health services,"
writes New Mexico congresswoman Deb
A. Haaland, an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, in the book.
Her father was in the Marines in and her mother was in the Navy.
Native American Veterans Memorial, located on the grounds of
the American Indian Museum and opening
on November 11, also aims to be a place where Native peoples can
honor their traditions and come to pray and heal.
Photographer Horace Poolaw
(Kiowa) documented the Kiowa community through three warsWorld
War II, Korea and Vietnam. Above Poolaw is seen with side
gunner Gus Palmer (Kiowa) inside a B-17 Flying Fortress at
MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944.
Poolaw (above with Gus
Palmer, Sr.) photographed service members and veterans performing
many traditional ceremonies from homecomings to funerals,
parades and dances. His archive documents how the Kiowa continued
to honor their culture.
An honor dance welcomes
home Pascal Cleatus Poolaw, Sr. (holding the flag and seen
with the Kiowa War Mothers) after his service during the Korean
War. With 42 medals and citations from three wars, Poolaw
remains the most decorated American Indian soldier in history.
A Book and Exhibition Share Powerful Stories
The book Why
We Serve, along with its companion
exhibition, is primarily about stories, says Hirsch.
Master Sergeant Woodrow Wilson Keeble (Dakota Sioux), who served
in both World War IInotably at Guadalcanal in the South Pacificand
Korea, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart,
the Bronze Star, and in 2008, 26 years after he died, the Medal
of Honor. In Korea, Keeble launched a one-man assault against a
line of Chinese-held bunkers manned by machine gunners. Armed with
an automatic rifle and a bunch of hand grenades, Keeble destroyed
all the bunkers on his own, paving the way for his unit to seize
the hill. Keeble later became disabled by his war woundsincluding
from 83 grenade fragments that had to be removed after that assault.
But he was still active in veterans' events and causes.
The Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), a band of some 6,300 Natives,
ranging in age from 12 to 80, served as the military's eyes and
ears along the 6,640 miles of the territory's coastline during World
War II. Alaska was highly segregated at the time and Natives were
paid less than half of what whites made for the same work. That
led to concerns that they might not be the most reliable allies.
"As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about; Alaska Natives
were eager to serve," writes Paul
Ongtooguk (Iñupiaq), director of Alaska Native studies
at the University of Alaska, whose father and grandfather served
in the Guard. The ATG shot down Japanese balloon bombs that were
traveling on the jet streamthat role and those weapons were
classified until long after the war. The existence of the Guard
also laid the groundwork for racial equality, says Ongtooguk.
A military officer swears
in four Alaska Territorial Guardsmen for assignment in Barrow,
Alaska, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.
Why We Serve is chock full of profilesfrom the story
of William Pollock, a Pawnee who enlisted and became a vaunted member
of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish
American War to Lori Ann Piestewa, a Hopi citizen who was ambushed
and taken prisoner in Iraq in 2003 and died in an Iraqi hospital.
Since her death, a signature mountain in Arizona close to her hometown
of Tuba City was renamed Piestewa Peak. The U.S. Army has named
its Fort Benning, Georgia Directorate of Training Sustainment headquarters
"Those personal stories are some of the most important that we
can tell," says Harris, noting that "there's no way one book can
represent all Native American experience in the U.S. military."
Hirsch says he hopes the book inspires further dives into Native
veteran service and reflection by those who have served. "Not a
lot of people have thought about why they did this," he says. "I'd
like to know if the book encourages those veterans to think about
their own service as individuals, but also for others to think more
deeply about the service of Native American people over the past
243 years of American history."
We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces"
is on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American
Indian in the Potomac and available
online. The museum is open, but visitors must obtain free
timed-entry passes in advance.
Alicia Ault is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work
has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington
Post and Wired. When not chasing down a story from our nation's
capital, she takes in the food, music and culture of southwest Louisiana
from the peaceful perch of her part-time New Orleans home.