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Native American Contributions in the U.S. Military

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Throughout American History, Native Americans have distinguished themselves with bravery and courage in military service to their country, often without enjoying the same rights and privileges afforded other soldiers. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’d like to highlight the contributions of just a few of the many Native American soldiers who have served with honor.

Pvt. John Elk, WWI Soldier

During WWI, more than 10,000 Native Americans served in the American Expeditionary Force. The majority were volunteers, and most were not considered U.S. citizens. Only U.S. citizens were eligible for the draft. Despite this, the government required Native American men to register for the draft, causing frustration and sometimes rebellion. Many hoped their service would lead to the government granting them full U.S. citizenship. At the time, only Native Americans who accepted an allotment of land under the Dawes Act of 1887 received citizenship. As a result, thousands of Native Americans served before they even won the right to vote. It was during WWI that military officials realized the value of Native languages to transmit sensitive information. German officials were not able to decipher coded instructions passed by telephone, radio, or telegraph using these Native languages. Code Talkers, as they came to be known, played a critical role in both WWI and WWII.

Native American soldiers participated in the WWI Meuse-Argonne offensive. William S. Harjo, a Creek Indian, was killed in France and awarded the Croix de Guerre military medal for his actions during that offensive. He served in the 142nd Infantry, 36th Division. An Oklahoma reporter accompanying the regiment spoke of the contributions of Harjo and other Native Americans who “gave their all” as German shells exploded all around them. “Among these men who gave their lives for the sake of all we hold sacred in the name of democracy are to be found numerous men of the original Americans. These Indians have borne their part all the way through,” he said.  

Samuel Holiday, WWII Code Talker

Native Americans also made remarkable contributions during WWII. In 1942, the first 29 Navajo Code Talkers were sworn in. Before the war ended, more than 400 Code Talkers participated, creating an unbreakable code that helped win the war. Samuel Holiday served in an elite Marine unit of Code Talkers. He went behind enemy lines on Iwo Jima to locate a Japanese artillery unit advancing on American forces. After locating the artillery unit, Holiday sent a coded message directing Marine artillery fire. With his help, U.S. forces eliminated the threat, and Holiday replied with a coded message saying, “Right on Target!” Code Talkers were a key factor in military victories at Iwo Jima, Saipan, and several other major battles in the Pacific Theater.

Lori Piestewa

During the Iraq War, Pfc. Lori Piestewa became the first Native American woman in the military to die as a result of combat. She was killed in 2003 after her convoy was hit by a bomb in Nasiriyah. Piestewa, a single mother of two small children, was first reported missing. She became a household name and the adopted daughter of many Native American tribes as a worried nation awaited word of her fate. When military officials confirmed Piestewa’s death, the nation mourned with her family. She was 23-years-old, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, and the granddaughter of a WWII veteran.

To learn more about the contributions of many more Native Americans in the U.S. military, search military records, Memorials, and our Native American collection on Fold3 today.

54 Comments

  1. Sharon says:

    Thank you so much for bringing up the subject. It is rare to see anything written about the American Indian and the good things they have done over the years. Had it not been for them, we could have lost both wars.
    Their history, etc. should be included in the history lessons of our kids in schools today. It seems like every other heritage is.

    • Myra Leichtweis says:

      EXACTLY!! Thank You!!

    • Bruce Trilling says:

      Sharon, unfortunately American history is not taught in school any more. Not only do American children not know about the contributions made by native Americans ,but those of our founding fathers. My family has ten generations who have served in the military since before the American Revolution. The only why my children and grandchildren know about history is through family records and stories. You are right the contributions made by patriots should be taught.

  2. William Warren says:

    I agree 100% with Sharon’s comments ,
    Its so sad that every other nationality and race gets all the attention but the ones that really should are not allowed to be recognized as citizens, this is shameful the way these people have been treated.!!!

    • Karen Bartlett says:

      Actually most American Indians did not want to be citizens of the U.S., but wanted to be citizens of their own Nations (Tribes). Citizenship in their Nation was denied any Indian who refused to go to a reservation. U.S. citizenship was forced on American Indians in 1924.

  3. Linda Harris says:

    Thank you for posting the information on native Americans. The First Nations Community of Gitanmaaxs, BC Canada, near Hazelton, BC is currently honouring Canadian First Nations Veterans from the Gitxsan communities at their local school, Majagaleehl Gali Aks which means “Flowers along the River” (the children are referred to as flowers of the nation) with a totem Pole and a plaque with their names on it. We have learned of an American military service woman by the surname of Chenoweth (Cpl), but have no first name yet. The information we have stated she was born in Hazelton BC and that she served/serves in 7th MTBN Bravo Company, Desert Storm and previously, Rocky Mtn Rangers Reserves, Transport Driver 86-89, MCpl Chenoweth. Would love to hear from anyone if they could help us locate her, or at least her first name.

  4. Peggy says:

    Thank you! This is the most interesting. I have visited a couple of Native American Cemeteries and was surprised and thrilled to see the way that every grave of a veteran had a LARGE American flag flying over it. They were proud to have served their country. Non-Native American veterans small American flags on them.

    I also feel like Sharon, their contribution to the freedom of this nation should be taught in our schools. The Navajo Code Talkers should be recognized for the service they performed.

  5. Lucinda says:

    I am a proud member of the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma and the daughter of a WWII veteran. My father was the most patriotic person I have ever known with a loyalty and love of this country that was boundless even though as a child he had endured institutionalized racism and cruelty through the Indian School system whose official mission was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”. The egregious national policy inflicted cruelty, hunger and destruction of native language, culture and attempted to erase the pride of ancestral history. My father demonstrated throughout the eighty eight years of his life a spirit and strength that prevailed over racism and discrimination, he succeeded in life, built a family and provided through hard work a wonderful life for his family. His maternal grandfather was the Caddo Cheif Sho ee Tat who was a principle member of a delegation to Washington D.C. in the late 1800s whose mission was to implore the United States government to stop or delay the removal of the Caddo people from their ancestral lands in Louisiana. Although the removal did happen it was delayed as a result of his efforts. My father is descended from proud, decent people who notably worked for the good of their communities. The Choctaw nation suffering from the forced removal to Oklahoma along the trail of tears only a few years later sent money to the Irish people who were being decimated by the Potato Famine–money raised from people who had suffered untold loss just a few years before. That kind of benevolence is admirable beyond words.. Native people should be acknowledged and celebrated for the legacy of kindness in the face of cruelty and genocide–Genocide which is truly this nation’s original sin.

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      Lucinda, thank you for sharing! My heart breaks for the injustices suffered — but swells with admiration for your father’s patriotism and service. Thank you!

    • Betty Rogers says:

      Thank for your sacrifice, service and valor to America. I watch programs on public television about Indian tribes every chance I get. Recently I especially enjoyed a program that they are teaching their children the Native tribal languages so they won’t be lost. God bless and keep you and future generations so that all is not lost and we never forget this land is your land. Betty Rogers

  6. Lucinda says:

    It should be noted and acknowledged that the Choctaws were the first code talkers. Rendering invaluable aid during WW1 to defeat an enemy that threatened the freedom of people around the world.

  7. Karen Bartlett says:

    My family is Shawnee/Cherokee with some Powhatan from ‘way back. My uncle was wounded in WWII in the Ardenne Forest and walked with a limp for the remainder of his life. My other uncle, his younger brother, was shot and killed on Pork Chop Hill during the Korean War. My brother fought in the Vietnam Era, on a nuclear sub in the Navy. My cousin’s son fought in Afghanistan.

    Besides these, my great great grandfather fought in Harrell’s Battalion, Arkansas Cavalry, Confederate States of America. One of my ancestors, Daniel Richardson, fought in the American Revolution. Although he was white, he married a Shawnee woman when he relocated to Missouri after the Revolution, in about 1804.

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      Karen, that is a remarkable legacy of service. Thank you!

    • Perry Evans says:

      Hi Karen, I have been reading everyone’s stories, I, to this point took an extra interest in you and your family post. I am Native American, I too had a great grandpa, Joe Silver that served on the Confederate Army, his mother was Indian and his father was white.
      One of his daughters, my great grandmother Roxie Harris married Wm. F. Harris. Grandpa Bill’s father was Irish, last name Davis, out of wedlock Grandpa Bill took his Indian mother’s name of Harris. Grandpa Bill and Grandma Roxie’s one daughter, many children, was my Grandma Lucy, her son, my Dad Wm. C. Evans, I’m Perry. We have some English on Dad’s father’s side.
      For the most part, I’m Indian. On my mother’s side, momma’s, father’s mother great grandma Leah Richardson Hedgepeth lived to be 105 years old, use to tell us great stories. She was born shortly after the death of President Abraham Lincoln. She passed in the early 70s. I can remember when she was walking, sometimes she would start out walking to church.
      I have so much wonderful, sad and horrible family ancestry history to share, but it would take a lot if days sitting on the front porch to tell you all of it.
      Thank you and to everyone who have presented all of this information as well as every individual that have shared their family, Native Military Service, so honorably with so much bravery. May God Bless our America and the world. Perry Evans.
      Hollister, NC

  8. Sonja says:

    Thank you to all who shared family history and to those who read and responded.
    It is interesting that all but one who responded were women.
    Do men not read these articles?

  9. Pakalhotep says:

    Greetings! I’m a man and I loved this article. Indigenous people are always overlooked.

  10. Samuel O. James says:

    I still show 2% indigenous my great great great great great great grandpa was Massasoit, two of my great great great great great grandpa’s were King Philip AND Alexander his sons, Alexander’s daughter, her daughter Mercy Terry (Johnson), her Son William H. Johnson who served in the US NAVY, his daughter Dora Johnson. (MANTON) MY great grandma, my grandma Ida Mae MANTON (Foster) who was married to my grandpa Ebenezer who descended from King Philip) Rhoda Foster (James) my mom to ME LOSER for serving in the US ARMY Sam James who having 2 grandparents from my mom “part Native” and 2 grandparents. Part Native Seneca and Blackfoot making me about 2% native

    • Linda says:

      I am so envious! As a kid I was always interrogating my Great Grandma Bailey about our heritage, because I wanted some Indian blood in me! I know that Indians camped along Gales Creek, but I have never been able to find someone to tell me where. After 50 years of living on Gales Creek, I have stopped looking for arrow heads as I never, much to my dismay.

    • Dean says:

      Via ancestry.com found one of mine, one Grace Micmac Indian, or perhaps Grace Micmac Granger, using her husband’s last name. Her tribe is the Micmac; the Micmacs are native of eastern Canada and the northeastern corner of the United States. Near all I can learn of her (born in 1584) is that she was born in Nova Scotia, Canada. Died in England. Records aren’t so good, that long ago, and racism can play an unpleasant role.

      Must think of what it was to her, to leave her homeland and migrate to England, so far, so far in so many ways, ethnically, culturally, linguistically … Wish I knew more about her.

  11. Chuck Johnson says:

    I served in vietnam, my Father and two uncles plus 38 members of our family Ottawa and Chippewa (both sides of the family) served in WWII. 17 were KIA. No matter what flag flies over this land , this is INDIAN country.

  12. I have just read ‘CODE TALKER’, the first and only memoir by Chester Nez, one of the original Navajo code talkers of WW11. I was filled with admiration and awe as I read of the enormous courage, loyalty , dedication & intelligence of those very fine Marine Warriors.

    The story begins with Chester’s (wish I knew his real name) childhood, living on the vast expanse of his grandmother’s land in New Mexico. Then to brutal white man’s kindergarten & on to graduation.

    The officers of the Marine Corpse who trained the Navajo soldiers/code talkers were so impressed by their splendid performance & extraordinary abilities, in every aspect of their training. One wrote to his superiors that he would ‘….. be proud & honoured to serve with them.’

    Chester depicts in horrible, graphic detail, the nightmare of the War of The Pacific against the Japanese.
    A splendid & proud marine, Chester died in 2014 in his 90’s. The last of the 29 original code talkers.

    In 2004, Chester was asked to give a Navajo blessing to the Boston Red Sox Team, & to toss out the game ball. It was April, & for the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox won the World Series.

  13. Donald St. John says:

    As someone who taught a course in Native American Religions at the college level for 30 years, I agree totally that the young people in our public education system are NOT getting anywhere near a full education in their American History classes –either the terrible violence towards the Indigenous people nor their wonderful contributions. Nor their deep spirituality and closeness to the American Earth.

  14. Sue Dickerson says:

    I have great admiration for these native Americans who have served America in so many ways! Thank you!

  15. Carol Landrum says:

    I have only found passing references to the Code Talkers used in WWI, who were Choctaw.
    I wish this article or another would explore that.
    Also, someplace I read that Chester Nez did the murals in the sanctuary of the church at the V A hospital in Albuquerque. Don’t know if that’s still the case, but for any who are interested.

  16. lawrence suhorsky says:

    some sort of award should be given to the navajo talkers. further, americans should help the native americans get an education. i contribute to the lakota indians and saint josephs indian school. was it surprising to see a portrait of andrew jackson in trumps office. jackson facilitated the indian removal act. we should have some kind of a small museum for the talkers like the tuskegee airmen are doing as we speak

    • Linda Weinberg says:

      Totally agree with you Lawrence and think that Children schooled in U.S. schools should get some understanding of the variety of indigenous people in this country and their cultures of respect and reciprocity with life and the land. The horrific treatment of these cultures through violence and deception needs to be acknowledged- most people are not even aware that the “American dream” was a nightmare for some. Thank you fold3 for this article and to all who have contributed.

  17. Richard Johnston says:

    Oklahoma’s most famous World War I Choctaw Soldier was Joseph Oklahombi. . He was a member of the 36th Infantry Division when he and some comrades were cut off by the Germans in the St. Etienne sector of France in 1918. For four days the Choctaw Indian and his buddies pinned down a German machine gun concentration while fending off gas attacks as well. When help arrived, they took 171 German prisoners. Oklahombi received the Croix de Guerre from the French Marshal Petain and the Silver Star from the American Gen. John Pershing in 1918. The uneducated young man returned to southeast Oklahoma when the guns quieted. He made a few appearances before veterans groups, then faded into a not always happy civilian life. His efforts to obtain a pension didn’t succeed until 1933 when he got $12 a month. Later this was terminated. Jobless and destitute, he appealed for help in 1937. A newspaper story netted him several job offers and he took one with a lumber company at Wright City.

  18. Robert Wright says:

    Is anyone aware that they built the National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington DC on the National Mall that was dedicated on Veterans Day.
    National Public Radio did a great write-up on it. just google NPR + National Native American Veterans Memorial

  19. LJ says:

    I find many of the posts here to be disturbing. I am not native, but I have a great interest and respect for their culture. Native Americans have served the country in an exceptional way, especially in military service, such as the Code Talkers. They should be recognized for that. However, it is counter productive in my opinion to try to cast blame for actions which occurred in the past. Anyone with a knowledge of history knows that wrongs were committed in the past because that was the way humans have operated for thousands of years. Taking over land, eradicating or suppressing cultures, slavery, etc. Such actions are NOT original to the history of the US ( Ancient Rome and Egypt would be the largest examples, but cultures such as the Maya and Aztec did so as well) and it is wrong to make such claims. It is equally wrong to try to cast blame on people today for what happened then. People today are not responsible for those actions. Trying to beat a dead horse by casting blame and trying to hold people today accountable for issues for which they are not responsible, does not inform, but it does create resentment and so the circle of hate and misunderstanding continues. In fact such accusations threaten to reverse all the good will and understanding which has developed during this current century. Americans today, and our school children, know less and less of their own history, good and bad, and current obsession about math and science insures this will not change any time soon. The quickest way to lose your nation is to know nothing about it. Such people will believe anything they are told. A nation of gullible citizens will not last long. What has made America special has been its ability to pull all our people together, all the time, as Americans, but especially when we are in danger. The trend over the last 30 years to gain power by dividing us into groups and appealing to racial and religious factions is unhealthy and not conducive to the long term survival of the nation.

    • The Motto for those who would destroy us is ” Divide and Conquer “.
      The Motto for All Good Americans, of any and all races, is ” United We Stand, Divided We Fall “.
      So….Let us stand together lest we fall apart.

    • R D Rowe says:

      Are indigenous people to remain as a group in grinding poverty because you want to ignore the history of why so many remain in poverty? White privilege blinds you from the need for material reparations.

    • Sioux says:

      The people whom went against their tribes and
      helped the WHITE man should have been cast out for sure. I bet they WERE killed regardless, Sadly.

    • LJ…… I read your ‘post’ three times and greatly appreciate how eloquently and factual you have stated the past and present ‘situation’ of our Native Americans. As a sophomore in H.S. (Wisconsin) I had a phenomenal U.S. History teacher–how I wish all past/current/future high school students could have had my ‘Mr. Lee’ as their U.S. History teacher.
      We sometimes learn from parents.
      We sometimes learn from community.
      ….. but mostly during our influential High School years we learn from our better TEACHERS!

  20. My father, from Oklahoma, enlisted for duty in the First World War. His tent mate and buddy was George Hotomorotubbe. I’m sure that is not spelled correctly, I only know it from hearing it.. In France, the first night in the trench, George was shot through the head and died. My father never forgot him.
    My father also know the Choctaw code talkers. They relayed messages on the regular lines. The Germans could hear the messages, but had no one to translate. I wish some one would write about them.

  21. John Allan says:

    The skills of the Native American Code Talkers was mirrored in both world wars by men of the 51st Highland Division who communicated in Gaelic and confused the enemy completely.

  22. Graham Buxton says:

    Living in the UK, I found both the information and comments really interesting especially having been to the US several times and visited a cemetery where several well known Native Americans are buried. If you’re travelling through Belgium take some time to visit the Native American Memorial at Regogne to those who fought in WWII

  23. Jacquelin Boykin says:

    My grandfather Edward Bruce Mcleod was 1/2 Cherokee. Obviously he was mixed with Irish/Scottish too but his mother was how he was a “Native American” even though that is such an incorrect term. I’m sure that most of his family is dead as he was born in 1934 but, i’ve been researching all of my family for my daughters Family Tree.

  24. Dorothea Meek Coleman says:

    Our family trees, my late husband Nelson Edwin Coleman, and myself, Dorothea Meek Coleman represent the best of the hard working colonial people that met this world they had come to and adopted the ways of the frontier men. Nelson’s family came to Virginia and worked their way west along the frontiers, many marrying Native women, and was accepted into their tribes, mostly in his family Shawnee and Cherokee. My people had relatives that came through Canada as well as Nova Scotia as well as Virginia, moving down through Canada to the northern parts of what became the United States of America, marrying into several Native Tribes along the way, suffering abuse both from the whites as well as the Native peoples. My relatives from the Virginia’s brought blood relatives of several tribes besides Cherokee. Uncle John Campbell was Choctaw. My Mother was Wyandotte as well as Cherokee. The Vanderpools, Baron/Barron’s, Woodbury’s had Native people that married into the family. My people as well as Nelson’s came to the Colonies in the latter part of the 1600’s, and my other relatives that came from the North Country then came south came as early late 1500’s. ALL along the way, both of our families have service men in our ranks, and proud of the service they gave to our Country, in nearly every war or battle’s that were fought before the Rev.War, and stretch to IraQ and Afaghanistan. A LOT of them served in WWI and WWII, Korean, Vietnam, WWII included both the Atlantic as well as the Pacific. We suffered some LOSS in EACH OF THE CAMPAIGNS . I know that I would have to pull on them for the strength that they had when they came over here, leaving what they knew, to settle and start new lives. I’m proud of being a grandchild of such people. Nelson’s Grandfather Jesse Coleman had a Cherokee roll number but never talked about it with his younger children.

  25. sheridan obrien says:

    sorry mick i dont know any of thes jokers
    too long ago to remember thanks anyway

  26. Daniel LOUIS says:

    Bonjour,
    Je suis secrétaire adjoint de l’association US Memory Grand Est France qui a pour vocation de faire parrainer par des familles Françaises les soldats Américains inhumés au cimetière Américain d’Épinal,Vosges,France.
    Il y a des Amérindiens inhumés dans ce cimetière et nous aimerions avoir plus de renseignements sur eux.
    Merci à ceux qui pourraient nous aider à en savoir plus sur ces Amérindiens,leurs familles ….
    Daniel LOUIS
    [email protected]

  27. Bradley Wishard says:

    The Real Americans have shown us over the years of battle, that they again and again have answered the call of bravery! They have had a brutal time over the years, but yet they show us TRUE LOVE OF COUNTRY. They have thrown away their reasons of hatred and did their part. We must always remember that we are immigrants in their country. We will always be greatful for being together to fight a common enemy.

  28. Hama Matsu says:

    From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, this is all Native American land. Native people have fought to protect “their” land, even alongside the descendents who stole it from them.

  29. Peter Schram says:

    Hi! So I notice that you said “over 10,000 served.” This is correct, but for clarification, the number is actually around 50,000.

    I think Ancestry has digitized all these draft cards. It’s such a great resource that you all have, I wish Ancestry/Fold3 made these records easily accessible in their entirety for their members!

  30. Margaret A Lewis says:

    Jacqueline,
    Keep searching for your grandfather. He or his family may still be alive and interested in helping you with your research. Several avenues for information are Ancestry, Rootsweb (the original free form of Ancestry) and ( in your case) Ireland Reaching Out.
    Both of the latter are free for all to use, no subscription required.
    I am only two years younger than Edward and am still “digging up dead people” to quote my husband.
    Good luck. Margaret L

  31. Colin Harold Carter says:

    When I was in the Navy, I considered every WOMAN and MAN I met, to be a WOMAN or MAN until she or he proved differently. I still think this way. What ever she or he does are just their own adjectives. I review their adjectives and decide to what extent I wish to develop a relationship with each person.

  32. Thank you fold 3 for creating a place for this discussion through comments as a result of sharing these stories of Native American service members. As a Native pastor of a Native American church I take every opportunity to thank our veterans for their service in protecting our freedoms and answering the call through every conflict in our history. I’m very proud of all our Host Nations members of the military, past and present. I have so many in my family. As I read the comments, they are “ALL” important to the discussion.

  33. Phyllis Moore says:

    My husband was in the Navy and on his ship there was Native American’s that were Code Talker’s.

    He said that he was a Guard when they went on Leave and he was to see that they did not get Captured by the enemy. If they were captured he had orders to try to kill the Native American’s so that the enemy could not crack the code This was in World War 2.

  34. Linda Hindes says:

    Thank you Fold3 and in coordination with genealogy research.
    I am very proud of our Native American brothers and sisters . I am ashamed and sad that our American government waited so long to allow them to be seen and heard. It was the Code Talkers, with their native language, who helped us win WWII. We might not be here today if it had not been for them. We have less than a handful living today. We must never forget our Native Americans.

  35. Pam Dicketts says:

    With every evil thing that has been done to our original Americans it makes me ashamed of our government. Still today when Doctor’s and other humanitarians rush over seas to dig wells so that they have good water and medical attention how about pausing for a minute to think about those here at home. They are no less worthy, we still have Native Americans living without water and electricity. Shame on you!!!!

  36. Carolyn Keene says:

    Did all Native American Soldiers who died overseas have the honor of being brought back to their homes after the war(s) were over? If not, America should make it a priority to get them home!

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