American Indians: Reactions and Contributions to World War I

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., University of North Carolina

The dominant U.S. federal policies directed toward American Indians since the 1880s advanced a vision for the future that could be called the citizenship of sameness. Some of the most intrusive policies were carried out by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, despite the uniformly unfair treatment meted out to them, the reaction of different tribes to American involvement in World War I was quite varied.

A black-and-white group photo of Native Americans from the Carlisle Indian College, working in the Hog Island shipyard.
Native Americans were involved in the war effort in many ways, from serving directly in the forces to working at naval shipyards. (Image: Everett Collection/ Shutterstock)

Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the agency charged with carrying out the federal government’s responsibilities to tribes, promoted assimilation of Native Americans. This included local federal agents disrupting the ability of tribal councils and business committees to be self-governing and the imposition of Courts of Indian Offenses. The courts were supposed to handle criminal actions and resolve disputes among tribal members. But BIA officials used them to punish Indian people for violating federally imposed laws, such as prohibitions against traditional dances and ceremonies and plural marriages that non-Indians deemed uncivilized.

The BIA controlled almost every aspect of life for Native people on reservations. In the name of civilization, citizenship, and self-sufficiency, ironically, it perpetuated poverty, powerlessness, and dependency. Now, based on all of this, one might have expected a fairly uniform—and largely unsupportive—Native response to American involvement in World War I. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, when the United States entered the war in 1917, American Indians responded in a variety of ways.

Native Support for the WWI

On the home front, many Native people supported the war. They planted victory gardens, made monetary contributions and in-kind donations to the Red Cross, the YMCA, and Salvation Army, and bought war stamps and some $25 million worth of Liberty Bonds. This monetary giving is even more remarkable when juxtaposed with the rampant poverty in Native communities during these years.

Men and women also served the United States as laborers, leaving their reservation homes in search of new work opportunities. This included such things as assembling military vehicles at the Ford Motor Company plant in Michigan and working at the Hog Island naval shipyard in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, some 4 million acres of tribal and allotted lands were leased to non-Indians. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for instance, the Lakota leased three-quarters of their rangeland so that non-Indians could graze cattle and sheep to produce beef and mutton to send overseas.

Learn more about Native American land allotment.

Natives Volunteer for the War

Black and white photo of Native American students during a mathematics class at the Carlisle Indian School.
Federal boarding schools, such as the Carlisle Indian School, inculcated a red-blooded American form of patriotism in American Indians. (Image: Everett Collection/ Shutterstock)

But, American Indians gave even more than their money, labor, and land to the war effort. Between 12,000 and 16,000 Native men and women served in the armed forces—a number that equaled approximately one-quarter of all eligible adults. Despite the fact that many American Indians weren’t U.S. citizens and therefore not subject to selective service legislation, more than 17,000 registered for the draft. Another 3,500 volunteered to serve.

Recruiters placed particular emphasis on the federal boarding schools, where a military model of education prevailed, and the curriculum inculcated a red-blooded American form of patriotism. At these schools, Native youths learned that citizenship obligated them to serve their country. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School alone provided 205 soldiers.

The reasons American Indians gave for serving in the United States military provide windows into the multiple meanings they assigned to citizenship and sovereignty—both U.S. and tribal.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Patriotism and American Indians

To be sure, some American Indians probably did see themselves as patriotic Americans fighting for their country. Fred Fast Horse, a Lakota had rationale. “I wanted to go and fight the Germans,” he told an interviewer, “because they would come over here and destroy our free government.” John Victor Adams, a Siletz Indian from Oregon, said, “I felt that no American could be or should be better than the first American.”

Joseph Cloud, a Lakota from Sisseton, South Dakota, said, “My nation gave liberally to the army… We knew that the life of America depended on its men, and we are Americans.”

Here, the terms ‘my nation’ and ‘we are Americans’ suggest that Cloud did not see U.S. and tribal citizenship as mutually exclusive. Instead, we might think of this as a form of hybrid patriotism.

Learn more about how Native Americans adjusted to the changes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Fighting as Independent

Other Native people fought in the War while not conceiving of it as the United States at all. The Onondaga and Oneida of the Iroquois Confederacy took this stance, when in July 1918 they declared war on the Triple Alliance as independent nations, and agreed to fight as allies, not subjects, of the United States.

Another group of American Indians fought for the land itself. A Yakama veteran explained that his people possessed a love for their homeland so strong that it allowed them to overcome feelings of mistrust toward the U.S. government. And there were surely American Indians who joined the service because it afforded an opportunity for excitement and adventure, or to bring honor to themselves and their families.

Opposing the War

On the other hand, there was open resistance to the draft among the Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo in the Southwest, the White Earth Ojibwe in Minnesota, the Muscogee Creek in Oklahoma, and the Iroquois peoples in New York State. Conflict over allotment—and the threat that the destruction of communal land ownership posed to control over tribal resources—informed much of this dissent.

In the pages of his newspaper The Tomahawk, White Earth Ojibwe journalist Gustave Beaulieu invoked the widely held notion that World War I was a “rich man’s war” and a “poor man’s fight.” Beaulieu asked why Native people should fight for a government in league with capitalist interests that preyed on Indian land.

Common Questions about Native Americans in World War I

Q. How were the Courts of Indian Offences used to persecute Native Americans?

The Courts of Indian Offences was supposed to handle criminal actions and resolve disputes among tribal members. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs officials used them to punish Indian people for violating federally imposed laws.

Q. How many Native Americans served in World Ward I?

Between 12,000 and 16,000 Native men and women served in the armed forces during World War I.

Q. Why did some Native American tribes issue separate declarations of war against the Triple Alliance?

In July 1918, some Native American tribes declared war on the Triple Alliance as independent nations. The reasoning was that by declaring war independently, they would establish their independent right to act as a Nation.

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