Throughout U.S. military history, Native Americans have played an integral role, participating in every major conflict that’s taken place over the last 200 years, including both World Wars and most modern-day battles. In fact, Native Americans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces at a rate that’s five times greater than the national average, according to the National Indian Council on Aging, with many electing to serve in every branch of the military even in the face of racism.
For a time, up until 1924, with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act by Congress, the government didn’t even recognize Native Americans as U.S. citizens, and therefore didn’t recruit them during the World War I draft. That didn’t stop them from stepping up to protect their homeland, however, with nearly 12,000 Indigenous men registering to serve. Some scholars estimate that up to a quarter of all Native American men participated during World War I.
Throughout American history, Native American participation in the U.S. Armed forces has remained consistent, with members of all 573 federally recognized tribes making sizable contributions to the military. According to a report by the United Services Organization, amongst certain tribal nations, 70% of the men in a single nation have volunteered to join the military. And it’s not only men who have heeded the call. That same USO report shows that some 20% of all Native American service members are female, which is five percentage points higher than the military’s overall female population. Some 10,000 served during the Korean War, many of whom also fought during World War II, while more than 42,000 served during the Vietnam War, with approximately 90% being volunteer enlisters.
For many Native Americans, joining the military was a way to escape poverty that was the direct result of living on Indian reservations. Students were also forced to attend strict boarding schools as part of the Civilization Fund Act, an act passed in 1819 that allowed benevolent societies such as the Catholic Church to establish schools on reservations in an effort to “civilize” students by teaching them to read and write English and practice Christianity.
While Native Americans may have been segregated as civilians, in the military they weren’t separated into units based on race. Instead, they served side by side with white servicemen, whereas Black and Asian soldiers were often assigned into special units because of their skin color. However, that’s not to say that Native Americans didn’t face racism while in uniform, often receiving some of the most dangerous assignments, resulting in approximately 5% of Native soldiers in combat dying during World War I compared to 1% of American soldiers overall.
Despite facing these unwarranted disparities, Native American service members still made notable contributions throughout U.S. military history. They include Gen. Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca Tribe who worked as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary and later became the first Native American to hold the office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Ira Hayes, an Akimel O’odham Native American and one of the six servicemen whose image was famously captured raising the American flag after the fall of Iwo Jima during World War II. Over the course of the U.S. military’s history, 29 Medals of Honor have been awarded to Native American soldiers for protecting our country and fighting valiantly during battle. However, some of the most recognizable and discussed Native American soldiers were the Navajo code talkers.
During World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps recruited 29 Navajo men to create an unbreakable code using Navajo, a language not only known for its complexity but the fact that it’s also unwritten and only spoken. Using Navajo, soldiers could dispatch critical information back and forth via radio during battle without the enemy deciphering it. The code, which assigned various Navajo words to specific military phrases and commands, led to the Marines’ successful win during the Battle of Iwo Jima and ultimately resulted in the defeat of Japan during the war. Even many years after the final bombs dropped, the code remained unbroken.
Even now, Native American participation in the military remains strong. Nearly 19% of Native Americans have served in the armed forces—versus an average of 14% of all other ethnicities—since 9/11. And, today, nearly 15,000 active duty service members identify as American Indian or Native Alaskan.