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American Indians Have Proud Tradition of Military Service

  • Jim Kent

The first American woman killed in the Iraq War was Lori Ann Piestewa, a member of the Hopi tribe. Her death four years ago brought attention to American Indians who serve in the U.S. military, and the fact that their participation has not been limited to the current conflict.

Gene Lindy, a Salish Indian from the Flathead reservation, dropped out of high school at 16 and lied about his age to serve in World War II. "He was a Marine, landed on Iwo Jima, was a drill sergeant during the Korean conflict," says his son, John Glover.

Glover directs the Black Hills State University's Center for American Indian Studies, in Spearfish, South Dakota. He spoke about his father at the Center's recent symposium exploring the history of Native Americans' service in the U.S. armed forces, as well as the varied reasons for what has become a cultural tradition. It was called "The Red in the Red White and Blue."

"He was very dedicated to the Marines," he recalls. "He eventually was in the Army, in the reserves and, you know, even at 60 years of age he was driving tanks around and still part of the reserve. And he fought, obviously, in the Pacific, as did all of his brothers."

Glover says his father's primary reason for joining the Marine Corps was to find greater opportunities away from his poverty-stricken reservation. "He was eager, as many young Indians were during World War II, to participate, I think, not only to protect their family, maybe not all of the United States, but certainly their own neck of the woods, but also to provide them with some form of opportunity." Glover notes that the military provided that.

Lakota elder Marcella LeBeau also served in World War II. She was in Normandy during the D-Day invasion and is the only American Indian woman to receive France's Knight of the Legion of Honor medal. LeBeau says she joined the Army because she was a nurse and there was a need for her services, but she admits there was a deeper motivation. "I think it's probably because of our culture, the way we live. We help one another, our extended families. Our ancestors were warriors, and they fulfilled that role in protecting their relatives, their families."

Today, American Indians fulfill that role as part of the U.S. military. It's a tradition that dates back to colonial days, when tribal members served as scouts for George Washington. Since that time, American Indians have consistently sent more men per capita into the Armed Forces than any other racial or ethnic group. More than 12,000 were in the trenches in World War I, six years before being "recognized" as citizens of the country they'd fought and died for. Some 44,000 served during World War II; another 42,000 were in the jungles of Vietnam. And in the Gulf War, one out of every three Marines was Native American.

At the time of his service during World War II, Lakota elder Johnson Holy Rock felt that his participation in the military would not only carry on his family's warrior tradition, but also help his people. Fighting for the freedom of the oppressed in foreign countries, he assumed, would surely lead to a better life for the Lakota. But his opinion has changed over the last half-century. "I'm sorry that I ever shouldered a gun and spent three years of my life walking all over in a war supposedly to make life a little better for myself, which has not happened. I live. But there are people here on our reservation that are less than Third World status."

And Johnson Holy Rock opposes the current war in Iraq. He says that many American Indians see uncomfortable similarities with the way the U.S. government treated Native Americans. "That's a people. And if the people tolerate that type of life, that's their right to exist as they are," he explains. "And, yet, we disagree with it, just as this nation disagreed that the Indian cannot exist as an Indian, must become a part of the American mainstream society."

Black Hills State University student Bear Hand, Senior, says he supports those American Indians who enter the military to carry on the warrior tradition or get funds to pursue a college education. But he agrees with Johnson Holy Rock on the war in Iraq. "I never wanted to get involved in a war that doesn't belong to me," he says. "That's just the way I feel. I'm living here, trying to do my own life, and I don't come from this society anyway, to begin with, so I just feel that it's not my place to do that. 'Cause a lot of the time I feel we're fighting for the wrong reasons anyway. I don't want to be a part of it."

Jace DeCory's husband was a highly decorated Vietnam veteran. The American Indian studies instructor at Black Hills State University says that with the variety of educational and career opportunities in today's world, she'd prefer that young American Indians explore other options besides the military. But DeCory adds that she would never tell any of her students what to do with their lives. "There are no boundaries around the reservation. There are no fences there," she explains. "And they can stay there and go to the tribal schools, you know, there are other opportunities that folks can get involved with. And I'm not gonna put down anybody that wants to go into the service, but I am concerned that we're losing too many of our young people in Iraq now." She calls the situation a double-edged sword. "I have to honor their decision, but I don't want my sons going to Iraq to be fodder there."

In spite of the opportunities now available to young American Indians, both on and off the reservation, South Dakota National Guard spokesman Major Orson Ward says he still hears one primary reason from those volunteering for military duty: a sense of purpose. "When you asked, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you volunteering?' - because we are a volunteer organization - … every time, [the answer is] 'It's just because I wanna serve, I wanna serve my country. I wanna serve my state. But also because I want to serve my people.' And that was a comment that every one of the soldiers that I've spoken to and had the privilege to be with during a send-off has made to me and to others."

Whether to carry on their warrior traditions, protect their land and people, or further their opportunities in life, the fact remains that American Indians still volunteer to fight for the United States in greater numbers than any other group of its citizens, even in a war that has divided a nation.