There when needed: Native Americans have always answered the call of duty

  • Published
  • By Retired Col. Gene Kamena and Dr. Roy Houchin
  • Professors, Air War College
Native Americans serving in the military long have been part of one of the largest per-capita ethnic groups in the profession of arms. Young Native Americans have answered and continue to answer the nation's call of duty for many reasons. Some see it as a rite of passage, while others have been taught service, sacrifice and courage are virtues of value. The Native Americans serving today carry on a time-honored tradition, one continued from the time of the first settlers on this continent to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"My people honored me as a warrior. We had a feast and my parents and grandparents thanked everyone who prayed for my safe return. We had a special (dance) and I remember as we circled the drum, I got a feeling of pride. I felt good inside because that's the way Kiowa people you that you've done well."-- Kiowa Vietnam Veteran, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

They have always been there; they were in the ranks of the military even before we were a country. In the early days of our nation they were our eyes and ears, serving as scouts and guides. The last Indian Scout retired from the Army in 1947 at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

Native Americans served in the War of 1812 and as auxiliary troops during the Civil War. Gen. Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, wrote the terms for Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Native American scouts served with distinction during campaigns in the western frontier and accompanied Pershing's troops in his pursuit of Poncho Villa in 1916. Teddy Roosevelt recruited Indian scouts, who accompanied the Rough Riders into Cuba during the Spanish American War.

Despite lack of citizenship status and not having the right to vote, more than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I. More than 600 were assigned to the 142nd Infantry Regiment, seeing action in France. Many were decorated for bravery in battle.

Native Americans who served in World War I secured signal transmissions by using their native language. Joseph Oklahombi, a World War I Code Talker, captured more than 100 enemy during the Battle for Blanc Mont Ridge in October 1918, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Native American Programs.

More than 40,000 Native Americans served during World War II, this time as American citizens after being granted citizenship in 1924. The now famous Code Talkers proved invaluable when they secured communications in the Pacific theater.
"It was always the warrior who was first in defending Mother Earth. It was his duty to be first. It is a part of traditional values, a part of protecting against any invasion that would endanger the people, our people and the land." -- Dakota/Lakota Veteran, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

Native Americans have a tradition of serving above and beyond the call of duty. More than 20 have received the nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, many making the ultimate sacrifice. Still others served and sacrificed with less notoriety; during the opening stages of Operation, Enduring Freedom, Army Specialist Lori Piestewa, a Hopi from Arizona, became the first female Native American service member to be killed in action. Not knowing she had been killed, Piestewa's family, tribe and community left their porch lights on to help her find her way her way home. During her memorial service, Daniel King read the following Oneida Indian warrior saying:

"When you adorn yourself with the implements of way, you are ready to kill. It is only right then you must be prepared to die as well. As Indian people, we know how to face war, we know how to sacrifice, we know how to honor, (and) we know courage. We know how to remember."

November is the time for all Americans to honor and remember the service and sacrifices of Native Americans, for they have always been there when needed.

Editor's note: November is National Native American Heritage Month.