Honored Native American Veterans

The Native American: Warriors in the U.S. Military

By Lt. Colonel Brian J. Gilbertson, United States Marine Corps

The Native American warrior tradition continues today as thousands of Natives are serving proudly in the military. The United States military has become, de facto, the only way an Indian can join the society of warriors, where there has historically been a strong sense of honor. That sense has not been lost over time. Native Americans continue to hold deep respect for their warriors, who currently wear the uniforms of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

James Elbert “Jake” McNiece (Choctaw) of the 101st airborne. (Photo Credit: Websta)

Snapshot of Native American History & Contributions to the Armed Forces

 American Revolution

Native Americans had no universal policy during the American Revolution. Some chose to ally themselves with the British, others served as Minutemen for the colonist rebellion, and others remained neutral. Their contributions to the war went beyond direct participation. Americans often attributed their victory in the Revolutionary War to the use of Indian tactics. That is a bold statement, but the military clearly changed its tactics in battle more significantly than its British regular army counterparts. Indians continued to fight for America after the revolution, not just as allies, but also as soldiers in the military.

The Catawbas tribe and others sided with the Colonialist Patriots, due to their friendship and ties to settlers. The Cherokees sided with the British to protect their land from further encroachment. (Photo Credit: Know It All)

Civil War

As many as 20,000 American Indians served in the military during the Civil War. Similar to the American Revolution, Native Americans held no universal policy during the war. Tribes aligned themselves according to treaties and proper defense of their homelands. Indians held prominent positions on both sides of the conflict. A Cherokee leader, Stand Watie, was a Confederate brigadier general and at one point was given operational control over white troops. General Ulysses S. Grant’s adjutant was a Seneca: Colonel Ely S. Parker, who wrote the document of surrender at Appomattox, and was later promoted to brigadier general.

Harvard educated Ely S. Parker (Seneca) was a Union Civil War Colonel who wrote the terms of surrender between the United States and the Confederate States. He was one of two Native Americans to reach the rank of Brigadier General during the Civil War. Later in his career, President Grant appointed him as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that post. (Photo Credit: www.galenahistory.org)

Ely Samuel Parker (left) with General Ulysses S. Grant and Staff. (Photo Credit: NPS)

Iroquois man in Union Army Uniform (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Union Native American Sharpshooters from Company K, an all Native regiment of sharpshooters. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Henry Wassagezhic (aka Henry Condecon), Company K, First Michigan Sharpshooters. Henry’s Chippewa family name means “Bright Sky.” Both his father and mother were descended from a long line of well respected and revered chiefs. His war experiences from Company K, First Michigan Sharpshooters are highlighted in the book, “Warriors in Mr. Lincoln’s Army.” (Photo Credit: Proceedings of the La Pointe band of Chippewa Indians in General Council and Assembled at Odanah, Wisconsin, 1907).

The 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles (left) were a Confederate States Army regiment which fought in the Indian Territory. One of its two commanders was Cherokee leader Stand Watie (right). (Photo Credit: The Miniatures Page, Zazzle)

World War I

In the early 20th century when the world was at war, Native Americans joined the fight to defend their homeland against German aggression. Nearly 17,000 Indians served in the military during World War I. They served at twice the per capita rate, when compared to the rest of the U.S. population. Their numbers were not the only significant part of their war contribution. Some Choctaws, for example, transmitted orders over the telephone in their tribal language. It was America’s first experiment with an unbreakable code the Germans were unable to decipher.

Due in large part to their perceived natural abilities and skill at warfare, Indians received dangerous assignments. Native soldiers had a far higher casualty rate than that of any other group: five percent of Natives died in combat while less than one percent of all other members of the American Expeditionary Force in France died. This theme of exploiting Indian courage in battle remained a part of American military methodology through Vietnam.

It is noteworthy that Native American warriors chose to fight for the United States even though about half of them did not hold citizenship during all of World War I. The absence of recognition by the United States government did not stop Indians from feeling obligated to defend their nation. The issue was resolved eventually and by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all American Indians were United States citizens.

The Choctaw Code Talkers from Oklahoma  pioneered the use of Native languages as military code (Photo Credit: Wyoming State Historical Society)

The American Indians who served with Company E, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, during World War I were some of the nation’s first “code-talkers.” (Photo Credit: National World War I Museum and Memorial)

Choctaw Code Talkers Joseph Oklahombi, Tobias Frazier and Otis Leader (Photo Credit: Oklahoma Historical Society)

World War II

During the Second World War, the most famous and widely publicized story was that of the Code Talkers. Their legacy of transmitting an unbreakable code over the radio waves during the war proved vital to the success of the Americans battling throughout the Pacific. It is arguably still the Navajo people’s “greatest symbol and source of cultural pride.” While the Navajo contribution of over 400 code talkers remains the most publicized, Native Americans from across the continent played a crucial role in “code talking,” including members from Wisconsin and Michigan.

In 1941, armed with optimism and having declared Indians to be fellow Aryans, Josef Paul Goebbels, German Minister of Propaganda in the Third Reich, predicted that American Indians would rather revolt against the United States than fight against a Germany which had promised to return their expropriated land to them.

Alaskan soldiers pose for the camera while in training at Hooper Bay, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. (Photo Credit: U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Native Americans were not fooled by this ploy. They displayed their loyalty proudly. Warriors responded in unprecedented numbers to America’s call for volunteers immediately after Pearl Harbor and continued throughout the war years, because they clearly understood the need for defense of one’s own land. Approximately 44,500 Indians served in the military during World War II. This represented more than ten percent of the approximate 400,000 member Native American population.

Participation in the war effort was not restricted to military volunteers alone. From 1942 to 1945, 40,000 Indians, both men and women, left their reservations for jobs in the defense industry. They contributed all means of support including tribal land resources such as oil and timber. Many Natives outside the military took a personal responsibility to assist in the war effort at home. Indians planted a total of 36,200 Victory Gardens to fulfill both their own needs and the government’s obligations. Indians were key financial contributors to the war effort as well. By 1944, Native Americans purchased $50,000,000 in war bonds.

There were 400 Marine Code Talkers in World War II from the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche tribes. Their efforts have been credited in saving countless lives. (U.S. Department of Defense)

World War II brought profound change to people across the globe, and Native Americans were no exception. Al Carroll notes this in his book Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veterans from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War. He writes, “No other war brought such cultural and social change [to Native Americans] in such a short time.” Veterans of the war came back as changed men and women. The warrior societies were reinvigorated and they began to have much in common with Anglo-American veterans groups, such as the American Legion. The bonds of war not only brought them together to re-instill traditions of their past, it gave them a renewed sense of purpose and identity.

When America re-instituted the draft, Native Americans responded with nearly one hundred percent registration rate of eligible men, setting the standard for Americans.  Many did not wait to be drafted and promptly volunteered their service to the military. “Since when,” one incredulous tribal member supposedly sneered, “has it been necessary for the Blackfeet to draw lots to fight?” Army officials maintained that if the entire population had enlisted in the same proportion as Indians, Selective Service would have been unnecessary.

Navajos in a U.S. Marine artillery regiment relay orders over a field radio in their native tongue. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (Sioux) was a highly decorated combat pilot and Marine Corps fighter ace who  flew for the legendary “Flying Tigers.” He received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. (Photo Credit: California Indian Education)

Jake McNiece (Choctaw) applies ceremonial war paint to another paratrooper from the infamous Filthy 13, an elite demolition unit whose exploits inspired the novel and movie “The Dirty Dozen.” (Photo Credit: Websta)

The men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo. Ira Hayes (Pima) is second from left. (Photo Credit: First Aero Squadron)


About 29,700 American Indians served in the Korean War. They fought alongside fellow Americans with honor. Three who also served during the Korean War received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award given to a member of the U.S. military for valor in action against an enemy force. One of the Natives earning the award was Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., a Wisconsin Winnebago. Mitchell previously served in the Marine Corps in World War II. In Korea, he was a corporal in the U.S. Army when he sacrificed his life to buy time for his fellow soldiers. Refusing assistance he pulled himself to his feet and wrapping his arm around a tree continued his deadly fire again, until he was fatally wounded. This heroic act stopped the enemy from overrunning his company’s position and gained time for reorganization and evacuation of the wounded. His actions fill the Ho-Chunk Nation with pride to this day.

In spite of being shot eight times, Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr. (Ho-Chunk) ordered his men to tie him to a tree so he could keep fighting, action for which he received the Medal of Honor. Red Cloud was the third of four Native Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor in Korea (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Another Medal of Honor Recipient: Pfc. Charles George (Cherokee) unhesitatingly threw himself upon a grenade, saving the lives of his comrades who were embroiled in hand to hand combat. Shortly thereafter, he succumbed to his wounds. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity.” (Photo Credit: Army.Mil


During the Vietnam War, approximately 42,000 Native Americans served in Southeast Asia either as advisers or as combat troops. Their contribution to the war effort is even more striking when you consider the following. Approximately one out of four eligible Native Americans served in the military forces in Vietnam, compared to one out of twelve in the general American population. Despite the decreased popularity of the war, Indians devoted themselves to the cause.

Believed to be the most decorated Native American soldier of the War, Billy Walkabout (Cherokee) received the Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and the Purple Heart. (Photo Credit: Best Teenagers Ever)

Walkabout in the 80s (Photo Credit: Best Teenagers Ever)

Ernie Wensaut (Potawatomi) checking his gear before patrol. (Photo Credit: Forest County Potawatomi)

Prairie Band Potawatomi member Larry Mitchell (center) served with Delta Company. He authored the book, “Potawatomi Tracks: The Ballad of Vietnam and Other Stories,” about his experiences and struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Photo Credit: University of Arkansas at Little Rock)

Cherokee actor Wes Studi volunteered for military duty and fought with A Company. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Glen Douglas (Lakes-Okanogan) served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. (Photo Credit: Standing Rock Indian Preservation)

Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and War against Terrorism

DAV life member Tyson Bahe (Navajo) served 5 years in the U.S. Army, deploying to Afghanistan twice as a cavalry scout. “The Native American culture is one of warriors. The elders pass down stories of warrior ancestors, and it is viewed as an honor to serve,” said Bahe. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Staff Sgt. Conrad Begaye (Navajo) being awarded the Silver Star for his actions during an enemy ambush in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Pfc. Lori Piestewa (Hopi) waiting for deployment to Iraq. Just five weeks later she passed into infamy as the first Native American woman killed in combat. Piestewa was a member of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, which was ambushed in Nasiriyah. Three soldiers were killed, five taken prisoner, including Piestewa who died in captivity. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Fellow captive Pfc. Jessica Lynch (pictured above). Lynch has repeatedly stated Piestewa was the true heroine of the ambush and fought like a commando. She named her daughter Dakota

Among the many tributes nationwide, Arizona’s state government renamed Squaw Peak in the Phoenix Mountains  as Piestewa Peak, and a plaque bearing her name is located at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Fort Bliss, Texas. Her death led to a rare prayer gathering between the Hopi and Navajo tribes, which have had a centuries-old rivalry. (Photo Credit: Army.Mil)

Soldiers taking part in the Native American Heritage Month celebration at Camp Victory, Iraq. (Photo Credit: Steven Clevenger, National Public Radio)

A woman on the Navajo reservation walks to welcome home veterans. (Photo Credit: Steven Clevenger, National Public Radio) 

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Lt. Col. Brian J. Gilbertson (pictured above) authored “The Native American: Warriors in the U.S. Military” as a research paper while attending the Defense Technical Information Center as a student in the rank of Major. 


DTIC has served the information needs of the Defense community for more than 70 years. Their mission is to aggregate and fuse science and technology data to deliver knowledge to develop the next generation of technologies to support our Warfighters. The Center manages the Information Analysis Centers, which provide technical analysis and data support to a diverse customer base.

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