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Memorial Day, Honoring American Indian Veterans

Our last few posts have discussed the important role and significant contributions of elders to American Indian communities. With Memorial Day approaching we want to specifically remember another group of people who have distinguished status in Indian country — military veterans.   
There are currently about 200,000 American Indian veterans — proportionately almost triple that of the non‐Indian population — demonstrating that American Indians play an important role in the U.S. military.

American Indians have served with distinction in all U.S. military actions for more than 200 years. Many tribes were involved in the War of 1812 and during the Civil War American Indians fought for both sides as auxiliary troops. Many people are familiar with the important role the Navajo Code Talkers played in the US victory in WWII.  One of the most iconic images of World War II is Marine Pfc. Ira Hayes, who was a member of the Pima Tribe, helping to raise the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima. In addition, nearly 45,000 American Indians, 90% of whom volunteered, served in the Vietnam War.  Contemporary service rates are also very high, with thousands of Native men and women serving on the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflict areas around the world.  Members of several American Indian tribes have had their service honored by receiving Purple Hearts, Air Medals, Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, Distinguished Service Crosses, and Congressional Medals of Honor.  

U.S. Army Veterans & Color Guards. Copyright National Relief Charities. All rights reserved.

Did you know that, historically, American Indians have the highest rate of military service of any ethnic group in the United States? 

Some Americans may find this extraordinary level of military service interesting given the historical mistreatment of American Indian people by the U.S. government. Many Native men, over 10,000, volunteered to serve in the US military during WWI despite the fact that most American Indians were not US citizens at the time and had no protection under the Constitution.  American Indians had the highest rate of service in WWII, a period when the social climate was such that American Indians were prohibited from patronizing business in reservation border towns.

Ira Hayes, Pima Indian Tribe, U.S. Marines

In the documentary, Way of the Warrior, UW-Madison communication professor and journalist Patty Loew, explored the high rate of American Indian military service and what it truly means to be a warrior in American Indian culture. Not surprisingly, Loew found in her research that the reasons veterans gave for joining the military varied.  Some joined because of the poverty and lack of opportunity on reservations.  Others joined to fulfill a desire for adventure or out of a sense of patriotism. But many others discussed the deeper, uniquely cultural meaning behind their desire to serve in the armed forces.  During her interviews of many American Indian veterans, Loew found some were compelled to serve because of clan obligations, cultural mores, family tradition, and treaty obligations. One veteran told Loew he enlisted because in 1827 his tribe had signed a ‘peace and friendship’ treaty with the U.S. government and promised to come to the military assistance of the U.S. should it ever be needed. Despite the fact that the U.S. had broken every promise made to his people, his tribe was still honoring the treaty they signed. You can purchase Way of the Warrior interviews and documentary online.

There is a strong sense of pride and honoring of military veterans in reservations communities.  Many tribes have cleansing ceremonies to assist returning vets in their communities.  At pow wows the honor guards post the colors, generally including the tribal flag, the U.S. flag, and the POW-MIA flag. The honor guards are also present during graduation ceremonies, funerals and other important events as well. The respect shown American Indian veterans is also rooted in a true warrior tradition. Throughout this week, we plan to highlight some American Indian veterans who participate in NRC services and whom we have been honored to visit on the reservations.

American Indian Veterans & Color Guards. Copyright National Relief Charities. All rights reserved.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 15, 2012 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Superbly illmnuaiting data here, thanks!

  2. Denise Maxwell
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Happy Memorial day everyone ~ hold those you love close today, and remember those who are no longer with us!

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