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‘We Became Warriors Again’: Why World War I Was a Surprisingly Pivotal Moment for American Indian History

7 minute read

When Congress in 2008 declared the Friday after Thanksgiving to be Native American Heritage Day, the resolution made only passing mention of why that timing made sense. It would “underscore the government-to-government relationship between the United States and Native American governments,” presumably due to the longstanding national myth of a first Thanksgiving marked by a peaceful alliance between European colonists and American Indians.

That reasoning was listed as the seventh point in favor of such a day. Much more prominent in the resolution — second only to the definition of what the House of Representatives meant by “Native American” — was the fact that the people who would be honored on the day “have volunteered to serve in the United States Armed Forces and have served with valor in all of the Nation’s military actions from the Revolutionary War through the present day, and in most of those actions, more Native Americans per capita served in the Armed Forces than any other group of Americans.”

In 2018, that important role in American history is especially relevant in the case of one particular war. Not only is November Native American Heritage Month and a time to give thanks; this year’s Nov. 11 Veterans Day observance also marked the centennial of the armistice that ended fighting in World War I.

Unlike the tale of the first Thanksgiving, this is a true story of Americans of European descent and Native Americans fighting side-by-side — and yet it’s often overlooked in popular narratives about the war.

More than 12,000 American Indians served in the war, generally as scouts, snipers and code-talkers. Those who didn’t serve in combat helped the war effort just as other Americans did, by growing victory gardens, hosting fundraisers, buying war bonds and becoming American Red Cross volunteers who rolled bandages and prepped medical supplies.

While a large number of American Indians were drafted into the Great War, most volunteered, according to William C. Meadows, an expert on the subject at Missouri State University — partly in hopes that their service would encourage the government to grant them full U.S. citizenship. Meadows explains that, back then, they were governed by a patchwork of citizenship categories. American Indians who had accepted the terms of new land allotments under the Dawes Act of 1887 had received citizenship, but about a third were not yet citizens. Just like the African-American troops who hoped that fighting for democracy overseas would help them fight for civil rights at home, they believed that logic would dictate that they should count as a part of the population for which they were fighting.

That method of pushing for citizenship came with substantial risk, partly due to the way American Indians’ military service was intertwined with stereotypes about them.

On the front lines, they might be given scouting and sniper assignments based on the belief that that they would be “comfortable” in that role, which involved night-watching. Others in the U.S. military just saw the group on a whole as primed for battle, on the idea that they were naturally warrior-like. (Ideas about what was natural for a racial group were in keeping with the scientific racism that was common at the time; such theories have since been debunked.) That meant there was an “unusually high frequency of American Indians being in really dangerous situations compared to the average soldier in the Army,” says Meadows. Stereotypes were also applied to those who contributed to the war effort on the home front; at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, an undated photo caption describes roughly 90-year-old female American Red Cross volunteers on the Mono Indian Reservation near Fresno, California, as “squaws” who have “forsaken their savagery and are working for the cause of democracy.”

American Indian soldiers also served as code-talkers, a role for which they would become much more famous in the next world war. Using at least six native languages, they translated Allied officers’ commands into their native languages so that the German enemies who were eavesdropping wouldn’t know what they were saying, including at crucial turning points in the conflict. For example, Choctaw and Cherokee code-talkers participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the fall of 1918 — the key battle that historian Geoffrey Wawro describes as having “cut the German throat.”

Meadows points out the irony of the fact that military officers encouraged American Indians to speak in their native languages to help the fight, considering the time the U.S. government had spent on the home front trying to get them to stop speaking those languages. In the 1870s, the U.S. government had started establishing military-style boarding schools designed to assimilate American Indians; the theories behind those schools remained dominant well past the end of World War I. “You weren’t allowed to speak in native languages at these boarding schools and you got corporal punishment for doing it,” says Meadows.

So it was clear that the war wouldn’t solve these deep problems of prejudice or resolve the issue of the relationship between the U.S. government and American Indians — but, in some ways, it did make a difference.

Warm feelings were expressed on both sides, as American Indian soldiers earned high praise for their service. In 1920, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front, wrote, “The North American Indian took his place beside every other American in offering his life in the great cause, where as a splendid soldier, he fought with the courage and valor of his ancestors.” Some earned the highest honors for their service. For example, a Comanche from Oklahoma, Army Private Calvin Atchavit, was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in action” in France on Sept. 12, 1918, for shooting and killing an enemy service member and capturing another one to take prisoner — all with one arm, because his right one had been severely wounded. Such heroic acts inspired odes to American Indian veterans called “flag songs,” often a feature of homecoming celebrations. In 1920, the Crow tribe of Montana honorarily inducted the Allied Forces Commander during World War I, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, into the tribe.

And thanks in part to a push by veterans of the Great War, most Native Americans who had not yet received U.S. citizenship received it under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

Service in the war also marked important psychological and spiritual steps forward, says Lanny Asepermy, co-historian of the Comanche Indian Veterans Association.

As Asepermy explains, after the Comanches surrendered at Fort Sill on Jun. 2 1875, “the government took our weapons away, and we were no longer warriors.” That was a major blow for people who saw their ability to defend themselves as an important cultural touchstone. Though some were able to get back that feeling as scouts for the U.S. Army in the late 19th century or as Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, World War I marked the first time that “American Indians served as regular combat troops, and not just auxiliary units attached to non-Indian units,” according to Meadows.

“When the [first] World War came about, we had weapons, and we became warriors again,” Asepermy says. He himself is a retired sergeant major who served in the Army from 1966 to 1990, including a combat tour in Vietnam from 1969-1970, and he says that urge to connect with the past contributed his own decision to go into the military.

And, while individuals serve for their own reasons, the general trend that stretched from Vietnam to World War I and back into time has continued. Since 9/11, Native Americans have served in the U.S. military at higher rates than other ethnic groups. Today there are about 31,000 American Indian and Alaska Native men and women classified as active duty in the U.S. military, along with 140,000 living veterans.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com