Honoring Contributions of Native Americans in WWII

Native American Traditional Dance

Highest Participation in Military Service

According to former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, “American Indians have proudly worn our nation’s uniform in every one of our conflicts… American Indians per capita have had the highest percentage of their people in military service, exceeding every American ethnic group.” (DENIX, 2023) The unwavering contributions of Native Americans during WWII are an inspiration to us all. Their bravery and ingenuity played a crucial role in the success of the United States and its allies in WWII, and we remain ever-grateful for their service.

Native Americans in WWII

According to the U.S. Dept. of Defense, more than 44,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. Military between 1941 and 1945, out of a population of less than 350,000 . (DENIX, 2023) This was a remarkable display of patriotism, considering that Native Americans were not guaranteed citizenship until 1924 with the passing of the Indian Citizenship Act, and some states continued to deny their voting rights until the 1950s. (Library of Congress, 2023) Additionally, according to the Library of Congress, “by 1932 the sale of both unclaimed land and allowed acreage resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the 138 million acres that Native Americans had held prior to the Dawes Act.” (Library of Congress, 2023) Their patriotism remained steadfast and loyal, despite these adversities. As the National Museum of the American Indian states, “Despite everything that American Indians had endured in the past, the warrior tradition—the tradition of protecting their people—called many of them to serve in the United States military.” (National Museum of the American Indian, 2020)

Calvin Coolidge with Ruth Muskrat, a Cherokee Indian, and others (Library of Congress)

A Declaration of War

Native Americans served in combat and support roles, often distinguishing themselves for their bravery. Thomas Morgan explains that “Indians saw the Axis Powers as a threat to their liberty, and the Indian tribes responded patriotically. The Chippewa and Sioux joined the Iroquois in declaring war on the Axis. The Navajo… were extremely determined to serve.” (Morgan, T. D. (1995). Native Americans in World War II. Army History35, 22–27.) The Daily Mirror World Service announced that “Iroquois Braves Declare War” on the Axis Powers on September 26, 1942. (National Library of Australia, n.d.) The Axis powers would have never guessed that these Native Americans would become one of their greatest threats, and one of the most significant factors in the outcome of the war.

Navajo Code Talker Uniform, National Museum of the Marine Corps

Code Talking

One of the most well-known contributions of Native Americans was their use of their native languages as codes. Native Americans who served the military in this way are known as Code Talkers. The Navajo Code Talkers, for example, developed a code based on the complex Navajo language that was never broken by enemy forces. This code played a crucial role in communications during the Pacific island battles, saving countless lives and aiding in the United States’ victories. According to the National Museum of the Marine Corps., “They were indispensable members of reconnaissance missions and operated radio nets at key moments, such as the landing on Iwo Jima.” (The Navajo Code Talkers. Triangle, Virginia, National Museum of the Marine Corps, n.d.) And the National WWII Museum quotes 5th Marine Division signal officer Major Howard Connor, who stresses how critical the Code Talkers were to our operations: “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” (National WWII Museum, 2023)

Preserving the “Code”

While we recognize the service of these Veterans, let us also remember that America’s native languages are a national treasure. Their preservation is essential. According to the Administration for Native Americans, “Native languages have been in decline for decades; currently Ethnologue lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction with only a few elder speakers left.” (hhs.gov, 2023) History implores us to reverse this trend.

Honoring Our Veterans

The contributions of Native Americans in WWII exemplify the virtues of bravery, patriotism, dedication, and determination. Let us remember and honor their loyal service during Native American Heritage Month and always. To learn more about the Code Talkers, visit the Smithsonian’s engaging and informative interactive feature here.

Of course we continue to honor all of our brave Veterans. To read more about America’s heroic Veterans, see our article “Honoring Our Veterans in Merritt Island Florida.

-Heather Longfellow

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