When European settlers began arriving in the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they found a land inhabited by diverse cultures of Native Americans with deep connections to the lands that they inhabited. While conflict sometimes erupted between the two groups—especially as settlers encroached on and stole land from Native Americans—in many cases, the settlers and native people forged alliances. These were sometimes complicated by intertribal rivalries and disputes within tribes about how to manage relations with newly arriving Europeans. Also, white settlers frequently broke alliances with Native American tribes whenever it served their interests.
Despite routine mistreatment and oppression from the United States and a complex history with the U.S. military, Native Americans have made significant contributions both as wartime allies and as members of the various branches, especially in situations where they have felt their own agency in protecting their own homelands and freedoms. Native Americans have enlisted in the U.S. armed forces at a higher rate per capita than any other ethnicity. According to the Department of Defense, an estimated 31,000 Native Americans served as active duty members of the U.S. military as of 2018. Another 140,000 were military veterans.
The Colonial Era and Revolutionary War
People sometimes view Native Americans during the time of European colonization as a unified group that shared a similar culture. However, the First Nations of North America were as different from one another as the foreigners who were arriving on their lands. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native people of North America were organized in complex social structures that included long-standing alliances and rivalries with their neighbors. After the arrival of the Europeans, the social, political, and economic complexities increased with the introduction of intertwined trade relationships. When the French and British fought for control of North America during the French and Indian War (1754–1763), tribes like the Algonquin, Ojibwe, and Shawnee sided with the French, while the Cherokee and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) sided with the British. As with any period of strife, most Native Americans had no choice but to become involved in war, as their own homelands and freedoms were threatened regardless of whatever outcome lay ahead.
Neutrality was also not an option for First Nations when the American colonists fought the British during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). In an effort to keep the colonists from encroaching further onto their homelands, the Cherokee, Shawnee, Mohawk, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca sided with the British. The Oneida and Tuscarora supported the colonists. The Delaware, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi'kmaq also fought with the colonists. These northeastern tribes were more embedded with population centers in the northeast and made decisions on loyalty for various reasons. Ultimately, though, Native Americans siding with the colonists were also looking out for their own interests with regard to trade relations and the protection of their homelands.
Members of several New England tribes, including the Mashpee Wampanoag, Hassanamisco Nipmuc, Tunxis, Mohegan, and Pequot, joined the colonists at the start of the war, fighting alongside George Washington (1732–1799) at the siege of Boston in April of 1775. In the 1777 Battle of Oriskany in upstate New York, members of the former Haudenosaunee fought one another when the pro-British Mohawk and Seneca battled the pro-colonist Oneida. While tribes like the Oneida fought as colonial allies, other Native people were incorporated as official units in the Continental Army. War records show that twelve Delaware soldiers formed an American military unit that was active from June of 1780 to October of 1781.
Following the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States was still in a very vulnerable position. The government continued a strategy of treaty making with some Native nations to establish borders and provide some stability. The support that Native Americans had provided on the side of the colonists facilitated the brokering of agreements with First Nations during this very early post-independence period. The efforts of both sides to agree to living side by side was short-lived, as the United States reneged on the terms of many of these early treaties. As more settlers moved to the frontier over an expanse of land that had increased after British expulsion, the government began to buy out or push Native Americans from their lands. Some Native peoples cooperated with the Americans while others resisted. Members of the Choctaw and Creek tribes fought with U.S. forces against the Seminoles from 1815 to 1858. Many times, the same tribe had divided loyalties to different warring parties. In 1800, the army formed a military unit of Cherokee to enforce punishments on tribal members who committed offenses. Some Creek soldiers sided with the U.S. Army against other members of their tribe in the Creek War of 1836.
Some Native American soldiers also fought with the U.S. military in the international conflicts of the 19th century. More than one thousand served in the War of 1812 (1812–1815). The majority of these were Choctaw with other large contingents of Creek and Cherokee. The Native soldiers were organized in more than one hundred companies, detachments, and parties. Among the notable units were Captain Wape Pilesey's Company of Mounted Shawano Indians and Captain Abner W. Hendrick's Detachment of Stockbridge Indians. A unit composed of Chickasaw Indians served under future president Andrew Jackson (1767–1845). At least one company of native soldiers served with the United States during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Black Beaver's Spy Company formed in 1846 in San Antonio, Texas, and was in service for six months.
The Civil War
By the time of the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), many Native American tribes had been forcibly relocated to designated territory in the Midwest and Southwest. Some Native participants on the battlefield saw the conflict as a way to gain favor with the Union and Confederate governments. Even so, neutrality was not a viable option when land holdings and tribal sovereignty were at stake. They hoped that by siding with the governments, the victorious side would allow them to reclaim some of their land. Additionally some First Nations enslaved Africans and had a vested interest in siding with the Confederacy. An estimated twenty thousand Native Americans fought during the Civil War. They were part of several major battles, including the second Battle of Manassas and the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
The Delaware Nation had supported the U.S. government since the time of the American Revolution, and once again fought for the Union cause—despite having been relocated to land in Indian Territory. In fact, the Delaware had been relocated more than once—recently from present-day Kansas to Indian Territory after squatters occupied their land as the U.S. population continued to spread westward. By the time of the Civil War, the Delaware were living on land leased from the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. In 1862, they joined with members of the Creek, Seminole, Seneca, Shawnee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw to form the First and Second Indian Home Guard. The units took part in a successful Union attack on Confederate-held Fort Sill in October of 1862. Some members of the Iroquois joined the Fifth Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, while members of the Pamunkey and Lumbee tribes fought the Confederacy in North Carolina and Virginia. Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters—a unit mostly made up of Ottawa, Delaware, Huron, Oneida, and Ojibwe—distinguished itself in battle near Petersburg when it captured six hundred Confederate troops.
The loyalties of the Cherokee Nation were divided, with leaders like John Ross trying to advocate for neutrality and others siding with the Confederates. Ross reassessed his neutrality stance after early Confederate victories. He went into exile and was restored as Principal Chief after the war. At the time of the Civil War, the Cherokee people were in disarray after having been relocated to Indian Territory along the brutal Trail of Tears, which decimated the First Nation. Some within the Cherokee tribe participated in the slave trade and exploited the labor of enslaved Africans to work fields. As such, they sided with the Confederacy. Stand Watie (1806–1871), a Georgia-born Cherokee, rose to become the Principal Chief of the newly declared Southern Cherokee Nation and a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Known for his brilliant battle strategy, Watie was placed in charge of the Indian Cavalry Brigade, a unit composed of Cherokee, Creek, Osage, and Seminole. After the Confederate surrender of April 9, 1865, Watie was the last Confederate general to stop fighting.
The official surrender documents signed by Confederate commander Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) were drawn up by General Ely Samuel Parker (1828–1895), a member of the Seneca tribe. Parker was a lawyer who served as the military secretary to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885). After the war, then-president Grant named Parker as head of the Office of Indian Affairs.
Indian Wars and World War I
The promise of new lands west of the heated battles and societal tensions of the Civil War encouraged more westward expansion before, during, and after the conflict. And, after the Union victory, U.S. expansionism accelerated at an even greater rate. The United States stepped up its encroachment efforts by establishing military forts further and further west. Each fort was an act of aggression and often countered promises of peace with Native Nations. Several tribes—notably the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Arapaho—resisted and fought back.
Motives were varied with regard to cooperation with the U.S. military during this period. At times, the United States benefited by exploiting long-standing intertribal rivalries. Less frequently, Native Americans were hopeful that siding with the United States would result in fostering good relations during times of stability, but by now the pattern had been established that the United States would ultimately always act in the interests of white European settlers over First Nations. In 1866, the army established the Indian Scouts to act as guides in the western territories. In 1869, Co-Rux-Te-Chod-Ish (1847–1913), also known as Mad Bear, became the first Native American to win the prestigious Medal of Honor. The award was established during the Civil War and is the highest honor given out by the military. Co-Rux-Te-Chod-Ish was a Pawnee scout serving in Kansas when he was wounded by his own troops as he pursued an enemy.
After centuries of oppression, forced removal, and wanton massacres at the hands of the U.S. military and ad hoc settler groups who faced little consequence for committing atrocities, nearly all First Nations that still took pride in some measure of tribal sovereignty were living on reservations at the start of the 20th century.
By the outbreak of World War I (1914–1918), Native Americans had yet to be granted U.S. citizenship. Still, when the United States entered the war in 1917, more than twelve thousand volunteered for service. About six hundred Choctaw and Cherokee were part of the 142nd Infantry of the Texas-Oklahoma National Guard, a division that saw significant action in France. Four Native soldiers in the unit were awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military honor presented for heroism in combat.
Just weeks before the end of the war in November of 1918, a commander of the 142nd Infantry overheard two Choctaw soldiers speaking to each other in their language. The commander realized the language could be used to transmit secret information by radio and battlefield telephone. The Germans had been able to intercept and decode secret communications and anticipate Allied battle tactics. Eight Choctaw soldiers were dispatched along the front lines to act as radio and phone operators. The messages they relayed to one another were never understood by the Germans. The success of the idea prompted other battalions to use Native Americans in a similar role; however, the war ended before the practice could be put to widespread use.
World War II
In 1924, Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship, which made them eligible to be drafted into military service. During World War II (1939–1945), more than forty-four thousand out of a total Native American population of more than three hundred thousand served in the U.S. military. The large percentage of Native soldiers suggests most volunteered for service rather than were drafted. They were deployed to battlefields in both Europe and Asia and fought with distinction.
Among them was Van Barfoot (1919–2012), a Choctaw who destroyed several German machine gun positions, repelled a tank assault, and captured seventeen enemy soldiers near Carano, Italy, in 1944. Ernest Edwin Evans (1908–1944), of Creek-Cherokee descent, was commander of the USS Johnston during the Battle of Samar, Philippines, in October of 1944. Evans maneuvered the destroyer to protect the armored carriers it was escorting from Japanese fire. He was killed when the Johnston was hit and sunk. Both Barfoot and Evans were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions. Five other Native Americans also earned the award during World War II.
Just as in World War I, the American military was plagued by the enemy intercepting battlefield communications. The Japanese were especially good at decoding the top-secret messages. The military was searching for a solution to the problem, but was reluctant to use the Choctaw and Cherokee languages because both the Germans and Japanese were aware of their use during World War I. A man from Arizona named Philip Johnston (1892–1978), who grew up near the Navajo Nation, suggested the military develop a code from the language spoken by the Navajo, known to those who spoke it as Diné Bizaad.
Up until the 1930s, Diné Bizaad was only a spoken language with no written alphabet. It was also structured in such a way that non-Native speakers had difficulty learning it. The military recruited about thirty Navajo soldiers and developed a secret code of more than two hundred words. Terms that did not exist in Navajo were assigned other names, such as "buzzard" standing in for bomber plane. During the course of the war, more than four hundred Navajo "Code Talkers" relayed messages on battlefields in the Pacific. The Navajo code was never broken by the enemy. Both fellow soldiers and military officials credit the Code Talkers as a main factor that led to an Allied victory.
Korea and Vietnam
When the United States became involved in a conflict between North and South Korea, an estimated ten thousand Native Americans served in what would be known as the Korean War (1950–1953). Admiral Joseph "Jocko" Clark (1898–1971), a Cherokee, commanded the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet during the war. Three Native Americans earned the Medal of Honor in Korea. One of those servicemen, Mitchell Red Cloud (1924–1950) of the Ho-Chunk Nation, received the medal for his actions on November 5, 1950. He fired on the advancing enemy from point-blank range, giving American troops time to regroup. Even after being wounded, Red Cloud continued firing until he was killed.
About forty-two thousand Native Americans served in the military during the time of the Vietnam War (1955–1975). The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 90 percent were volunteers. James E. Williams (1930–1999), a Cherokee from South Carolina, was among the most decorated members of the U.S. Navy. On October 31, 1966, Williams was commanding a river patrol boat when it came under fire from enemy boats. After destroying one boat, Williams and his crew pursued the other, eventually discovering a fleet of enemy vessels. In a three-hour firefight, Williams directed an attack against more than one thousand enemy troops and damaged or destroyed sixty-five enemy boats. For his actions, Williams was the first seaman to earn all seven of the Navy's major awards: The Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. In 2004, a naval destroyer was named in his honor.
Service in the Modern Era
As of 2018, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society lists thirty-two Native Americans as having won the award. After Vietnam, Native Americans continued to serve in high numbers in the U.S. military, taking part in every major conflict, including the Persian Gulf War (1991) and the wars in Afghanistan (2001–2021) and Iraq (2003–2011). In 2003, Lori Piestewa (1979–2003), a Hopi from Arizona, was killed in an ambush in Iraq in which several of her comrades were captured. A mountain near Phoenix, Arizona, was renamed Piestewa Peak in her honor.
In the 21st century, the Department of Defense estimated about 18.6 percent of Native Americans have served in the armed forces. The rate among other ethnicities was 14 percent. Native American women also enlist in higher numbers. In 2018, 11.8 percent of the 140,000 Native American veterans were women, compared with 8 percent of all other veterans.
In 2018, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian unveiled the final design plans for the National Native American Veterans Memorial to be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The project was opened to the public on November 11, 2020.