Motivations for Service

Indigenous military service is a complex narrative of loyalties, influences, and motivations. Westerners have frequently (and falsely) read Indigenous participation in the military as an attempt to legitimize themselves in the eyes of dominant society as American citizens.[1] American elites eagerly recruited Native Americans into military service, because they considered them a “martial race” imbued with certain warrior-like qualities that made them superb soldiers. Martial race ideology subjected Native Americans to two inherently conflicting and ambiguous agendas: first, efforts to emulate hypermasculine warriorhood, and second, to assimilate this worthy “martial race” into dominant society. Boarding schools such as Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania (established in 1879), and other distant off-reservation boarding schools like Hampton Institute in Virginia (established in 1878), and Haskell School in Kansas (established in 1884) sought to completely transform Indigenous children, inside and out, and to produce assimilated and compliant citizens. Widely regarded as “total institutions,” boarding schools constituted part of an all-out effort to eradicate Indigeneity through cultural assimilation.[2] The thinking went that boarding school education with a highly regimented daily routine and patriotic procedures would ensure Indigenous loyalty. Military service would further inculcate Native Americans with American patriotism, duty, and loyalty. Indigenous motivations for military service during World War I were complex and multi-causal: they included sociocultural motivations such as carrying on cultural and warrior traditions (or a warrior ethos); assimilationist and acculturative influences (such as Western education, employment, status, income, the draft, urban migration, increased war-related industries), and a dual patriotism which aimed to protect their own tribal people and homeland as well as the United States and its citizens.[3]

The National Debate on Integration or Segregation of Indigenous Soldiers

Native Americans participated in each military conflict from the American Revolutionary War to the American Civil War. In 1866, the Army Reorganization Act regularized the use of Indigenous scouts and auxiliaries. From the 1860s through to the 1890s, Indigenous scouts and auxiliaries played a crucial role in military campaigning and the subjugation of the remaining tribal nations in the West.[4]

The national debate about whether to integrate Indigenous soldiers into the United States military, held between 1891 and 1918, was a debate over federal Indian policy between assimilationists and preservationists. Assimilationists were convinced that Native Americans were a “vanishing race” due to expropriation and subjugation – military defeat, land loss, removal, and so on. Accordingly, the only pathway to survival and avoiding extinction was through citizenship, education, and allotment (the breaking up of tribal lands into individual parcels). Preservationists likewise considered assimilation inevitable, but hoped to preserve what was left of the culture of what they considered an ultimately doomed people through picture, audio, and camera.[5] The issue of integrating or segregating Indigenous soldiers into the regular United States Army falls into the larger context of this discussion. In 1891, military officials introduced Indigenous men into the regular army. The idea was to provide Indigenous men, particularly boarding school graduates, with employment, and to function as a vehicle for assimilation. Rather than scouts or auxiliaries, Indigenous men were meant to serve as regular troops. However, unlike black troops who were segregated at the regimental level, Indigenous troops were segregated at the company level. These companies were then mixed with other companies among the regiments in order to achieve acculturation.[6] Despite some initial success, this experiment proved to be an utter failure and was ultimately abandoned. The main reasons for the failure to integrate Indigenous men into the military were culturally-based problems, blatant racism, and bureaucratic indifference and inefficiency.[7] By 1894, only 547 Indigenous men were enlisted, and further enlistment was suspended. By 1895, all but one unit was in service, and by 1897, the last unit was dismissed.[8] The failure of the project meant that after 1897 military officials abandoned the notion of recruiting Indigenous soldiers into the military in segregated units; rather than treating Native Americans as a separate racial group, the military would treat them individually and integrate them into white units, a practice that continued through the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War (1898-1902), the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and after.[9]

During World War I, the debate over integrating or segregating Indigenous soldiers resurfaced once again and was argued through the press, congressional hearings, and public addresses. The debate received a major boost following the American declaration of war on Germany on 2 April 1917.[10] Adherents of segregated units stressed that military service would help preserve what many saw as “a vanishing race” and aid Indigenous people in their quest for citizenship. These preservationists saw no inconsistency between the preservation of Indigenous culture(s) as well as citizenship, an assimilationist goal. The most outspoken advocate of all-Indigenous units was Dr. Joseph Kossuth Dixon (1856-1927), a photographer, writer, and former minister. Conversely, adherents of integrated units pointed to the failed 1890s experiment and argued that segregated service was detrimental to the assimilation process. Voices of opposition came most notably from Chief of Staff of the United States Army General Hugh Scott (1853-1943), reformer Richard Pratt (1840-1924), and Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells (1859-1948). Integrated military service was consistent with the Indian Office’s boarding school programs, allotment policies, and prohibition of Indigenous religious practices. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and reform groups advocated for integrated military units, arguing that only assimilation and citizenship would ensure the survival of Native Americans. Ultimately, the debate over integrating or segregating Indigenous soldiers was won by the integrationists.[11]

The Draft and Regulations Regarding Indigenous Enlistment

On 18 May 1917, the United States Congress passed the Selective Service Act and a little later, on 5 June 1917, called upon all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one to register for the draft. Whereas all Indigenous males of that age were required to register for the draft, only roughly a third held United States citizenship. Despite their legal status as non-citizens, many Indigenous draftees waived their right to apply for an exemption from military service.[12]

Government figures indicate that by the end of September 1918, a total of 17,313 Indigenous men had registered for the draft, and of these 6,509 were inducted, a number representing roughly 13 percent of the adult Indigenous population; this number, however, does not include voluntary enlistment.[13] Apparently, the ratio of volunteers was significantly higher.[14] Only 228 registrants claimed deferment, less than 2 percent of all registered.[15] A total of 12,000 Native Americans served in the United States military.[16] Some sources claim that of these, roughly 10,000 Native Americans served in the army and 2,000 in the navy.[17] While this number seems small in total, it was considerable in proportion to the Indigenous male population.[18] It is estimated that during the Great War about 20-30 percent of adult Indigenous men joined the United States military as compared to the 15 percent of all adult American men who served.[19]

Military service – whether through conscription or voluntary enlistment – was firmly linked to deeper questions about Indigenous political sovereignty.[20] Several tribal nations saw selective service as an infringement upon their status as “domestic dependent nations”, as it bypassed tribal governance and endangered federally guaranteed protections. Although the draft applied only to citizens, it also required Indigenous non-citizens to register and then request deferment, which infringed on tribal sovereignty. Some Seneca of the Iroquois Confederacy of upstate New York argued that draft laws compromised tribal sovereignty and resisted conscription; the Oneida and Onondaga declared war on Germany separately in an effort to maintain their tribal autonomy.[21] Other tribes feared Anglo infringement upon their lands.[22]

Indigenous draft resistance was a rare occurrence across Indian Country during World War I and, in most cases, linked to misunderstandings of the Selective Service Act.[23] Confusion over citizenship status and draft procedures were actually greater than resistance to the draft itself: for example, among the Navajos in Arizona and Utes in Colorado, misinformation led to resistance against registration officers in the summer of 1917.[24] Further unrest occurred on the Goshute reservation in Nevada in February 1918 and among some Creeks and Seminoles in Oklahoma in June 1918.[25] Despite occasional resistance to the draft, the majority of Native Americans supported the war effort and eagerly enlisted.

Experiences in the United States Military

Indigenous soldiers fought in every branch of service, yet the overwhelming majority served in the army, in infantry units.[26] A small number of veterans also enlisted in the armies of other nations – such as Canada, Britain, and France – before America’s entrance into the war in 1917. At the front lines, Indigenous soldiers frequently found themselves as scouts to survey territory, snipers to patrol the front, or runners to carry messages (as Germans were renowned for intercepting telephone communications).[27]

The exposure to risk in these front line duties was reflected in the high casualty rate of Indigenous servicemen.[28] As a direct result of their service, an estimated 5 percent of all Indigenous servicemen died in action (as compared to 1 percent of their non-Indigenous counterparts in the American Expeditionary Forces which suffered a total of 50,280 killed and 95,786 wounded).[29] Further evidence suggests that Indigenous servicemen died in greater numbers from influenza.[30]

Branch of Service Number
Army (total) 2,315
Air service 47
Ammunition train 112
Engineers 76
Field artillery 275
Infantry 1,265
Other 540
Navy (total) 116
Other nations (total) 9
Canadian Army 7
British Army 1
French Air Service 1
Unknown 406
Total veterans documented by Joseph Dixon 2,846

Table 1: Branch of Service for American Indian veterans[31]

As the war progressed, Anglo-American officers pioneered the utilization of Indigenous code talkers to safely transmit messages. As Indigenous languages are not related to European languages, Germans were unable to crack intercepted messages. The idea of transmitting messages in Indigenous languages originated with some Choctaws from Oklahoma in Company E of the 142nd Regiment and 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division. Choctaw code talkers were placed in several companies to transmit military messages in their tribal languages. The use of Indigenous code talkers was meant to counter the interception of messages and the capture of message runners by enemy Germans. The Choctaw code talkers helped the American Expeditionary Forces in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.[32] During World War I, some nineteen Choctaws served as code talkers, utilizing a formally developed code or encoded vocabularies within their tribal language.[33] There are also confirmed instances where Cherokee, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, and Yankton Sioux servicemen utilized their non-coded tribal languages to transmit informal messages.[34]

The Indigenous Home Front

Native Americans made significant contributions on the home front. They bought about $25 million dollars’ worth of war bonds, and about 10,000 Native Americans joined the Red Cross, wrapping bandages, knitting, and collecting clothing for those in need on the Western Front.[35] Indigenous women in particular supported the war effort through manifold activities, such as buying war bonds, donating to the Red Cross, or working in war-related industry such as shipyards, aircraft plants, or weapons and ammunitions factories.[36]

The extraordinary service record of Native Americans during World War I attracted considerable media attention. The media portrayed Indigenous military service in ways that gave credence to the legitimacy of the American war effort and the superiority of the United States military. Stereotypical news media accounts invoked the image of brave warriors fighting for democracy and against German tyranny.[37] The fact remains, however, that stereotypical views of Indigenous soldiers not only influenced American perceptions; they also influenced German perceptions. Germans, too, regarded Indigenous soldiers as members of a "martial race" imbued with particular warrior-like characteristics. The United States Army soon learned that the presence of Indigenous soldiers had a psychological impact on their German enemies.[38] Apparently, much of the fear and respect instilled in German soldiers stemmed from the fanciful novels of Karl May (1842-1912), a German writer of the late 19th century. In his novels, May established Indigenous warriors as both noble and ignoble, frequently extolling their supposed propensities for scouting, hunting, tracking, and fighting. Apparently, German soldiers harbored conflicting notions when encountering their former childhood heroes; this time as enemies on the battlefront.

Post-War Discrimination

Indigenous participation in the Great War did not mean an end to government paternalism, nor did it halt racial discrimination or settler colonial infringement upon Indigenous lands and resources.[39] For example, many Native Americans were unsuccessful in redeeming liberty bonds on the grounds that Indigenous purchasers were declared “incompetent.”[40] Many Indigenous veterans returned to impoverished reservation communities with high rates of unemployment, poor health, disenfranchisement, and illiteracy. Despite the substantial contribution of Native Americans to the war effort, the federal government often only extended symbolic gestures to express their gratitude, but provided no substantial aid in curbing reservation problems such as unemployment.[41]

Legacies and Commemoration of Indigenous Service

Participation in the United States military earned 150 Indigenous servicemen medals for valor, and ten received the French Croix de Guerre.[42] The most renowned war heroes was Joseph Oklahombi (1895-1960) (Choctaw) with the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, whose exploits rivaled those of his Anglo counterpart Alvin Cullum York (1887-1964), the most highly decorated American soldier of World War I. Oklahombi was awarded the Croix de Guerre for leading an attack across 210 yards of barbed wire, wrenching a machine gun from its German crew and turning the weapon on the enemy, holding the position for four days, and taking 171 Germans captive.[43]

The war experience of Indigenous soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces paralleled that of other colonized or racialized troops who served on the Western Front, such as Indigenous soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, Senegalese soldiers in the French army, and British colonial troops from India.[44] Historian Thomas Britten has identified major parallels in the experiences of minority troops in World War I: firstly, many minority groups fought for similar reasons (e.g. for economic reasons; to show their loyalty to their nation state; to gain recognition for their military service in the form of civil rights; and to improve their social and political status following the war); secondly, prevailing racial stereotypes and the way they influenced the assignment of duties; and thirdly, a similarity in the outlook of white policymakers, who hoped that military service would acculturate minority soldiers to “proper” and “civilized” behavior.[45]

For their wartime service, the United States Congress granted citizenship to all honorably discharged Native American veterans on 6 November 1919. The Snyder Act of 1924 extended citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States. The bestowal of United States citizenship complexly situated Native Americans between their own tribal nations (through treaty rights) and the American nation state (through civil rights). Many Native Americans viewed United States citizenship as a further erosion of their political sovereignty.[46]

Participation in the Great War left a lasting impact on Indigenous people. World War I provided Native Americans an opportunity to escape reservation life and a chance to visit Europe. Indigenous veterans returned home with experiences that changed their perspectives on life and tools that helped them navigate between the Anglo and the Indigenous worlds, such as education, training, and new skills. Military service brought together Indigenous men from different tribes and regions across the United States.[47] It also produced an Indigenous leadership that felt less intimidated by the Indian Office and its successor, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (since 1947).[48] Many Native American World War I veterans became tribal leaders.[49] This generation of Indigenous leaders was more outspoken in the debate about citizenship, tribal self-governance under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, and terminating the special trust relationship between Indigenous warden and federal guardian in the 1950s.[50] Many Native World War I veterans were organized in American Legion posts. They lobbied for veterans’ rights such as pensions and participated in the bonus march on Washington, D.C. in 1931.[51] They also petitioned against on-reservation restrictions; for example, they demanded the right to hold dances, a custom that had been prohibited by the government as part of its assimilation policy.[52] Most evidence surrounding Native veterans’ political activism is anecdotal and focused on their tribal community.[53]

Wartime service also led to a renewal of cultural practices, ceremonies, rituals, songs, and tribal languages across Indian Country.[54] Indigenous servicemen were given farewell and homecoming celebrations, often accompanied by songs and dances. Indigenous participation in World War I, therefore, meant a brief revitalization of cultural forms that had been prohibited by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for decades.[55]

Indigenous participation in the Great War set a precedent for future generations of Native American men to serve in 20th century conflicts in overwhelming numbers in relation to their population.[56] The use of Indigenous code talkers was continued with the entrance of America into World War II. Apparently, 534 individuals served as code talkers during World War II.[57] Most served in the Pacific, others in North Africa and Europe.[58] The Native code talkers of World War I and World War II came from twenty different tribes.[59] Apparently, none of the codes were ever broken during either war. Since the 1980s, the Choctaw code talkers of World War I have been posthumously honored by their tribal nations, the state of Oklahoma, and the French government.[60] Despite several legislative efforts on the state and federal level, the World War I generation of code talkers remained largely in the shadow of efforts to honor the service of the code talker generation of World War II. The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008, signed into Public Law 110-420 honored all code talkers of both wars; it was also the first congressional legislation that honored code talkers of World War I.[61]


During World War I, an overwhelming number of Indigenous men eagerly embraced the opportunity to serve with the United States military. Federal Indian policies facilitated Indigenous recruitment, as did Indigenous motivations to serve. Indigenous responses to the war were varied.[62] While the majority of Native Americans supported the war effort, many did not even possess citizenship rights. Draft resistance – though minimal – related to larger issues of tribal sovereignty and the violation of treaty rights. Military participation led to a brief cultural revitalization of previously suppressed cultural and religious practices. Following the war, citizenship rights were bestowed first upon veterans and then extended to the entire Indigenous population. The Indigenous war effort and citizenship rights, however, did not result in improved conditions on reservations, economic empowerment or an end to racial bias. Homecoming Native veterans became both culturally and politically active, bringing with them new skills and perspectives that helped them as a new generation of Indigenous leaders. During World War I, Native Americans set a precedent of serving in the United States military as regular soldiers, a tradition that has been continued throughout all 20th and 21st wars and conflicts.

Matthias Voigt, Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main

Section Editors: Ross Kennedy; Edward G. Lengel