Racial Stereotyping of Native Americans in World War I

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

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

Despite the opposition of many tribes to fighting in World War I, many individuals and tribes helped in the American war effort. They contributed land, labor and money. But, more importantly, many Native Americans enlisted for the war. Those who did go to the slaughter fields of France became part of racially integrated units across all branches of the armed forces. But racial stereotyping still prevailed.

Native American warrior on a horse, without mountains in the background.
Racial stereotypes about Native Americans persisted despite their service in World War I. (Image: Catmando/Shutterstock)

Native Americans in WWI

Let us look at a few Native Americans who were in the war. William Leon Wolfe, a Minnesota Chippewa, joined  the  Navy  and was assigned to the USS Utah, where he served as a gunner. He also became a lightweight boxing champion as his division’s representative in tournaments. Sam Anderson, a Muscogee Creek, saw action in France with the American Expeditionary Force. Fred Fast Horse served in the 89th Division’s Ammunition Train, transporting bullets and shells to infantry and artillery on the battlefield. Other Native men and women served as medics, nurses, engineers, interpreters, commissioned officers, fighter pilots, and balloon squadron commanders.

Among the most fascinating ways in which Native people contributed to the war was as code talkers—that is, by using their languages to send and receive cryptographic messages. During World War I, individuals from six tribal nations—the Cherokee, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, Yankton, and Choctaw—engaged in code talking. The Choctaw language served as the basis for the development of a special vocabulary.

Learn more about how Native Americans got involved in the public arenas.

Choctaw Code Talkers

The idea for a Choctaw Telephone Squad originated in October 1918, when American forces were pinned down by a German attack at St. Etienne. The Germans had proved adept at tapping American telephone lines, effectively compromising their ability to reposition troops and artillery and coordinate their attacks. But by chance, an officer in the 142nd Infantry overheard two soldiers speaking with each other in Choctaw. This, in turn, led to the development of a quick plan to use the language over the field telephone system to safely redeploy troops.

Eventually, 18 Choctaws used their language to great effect during the final campaign of the war. One of the code talkers was Otis W. Leader, a machine gunner, who was wounded twice and received a Purple Heart, two Silver Stars, and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Unique but Dispensable

A black-and-white photo of Choctaw soldiers holding the American flag.
Choctaw men were trained to use coded radio and telephone transmissions in World War I. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Native soldiers fought in all of the major American offensives from May through November 1918. And yet, American Indian service was often rendered as particular and unique—with problematic consequences. For one, American Indians—because of the way they were viewed by their commanding officers—were not infrequently put in dangerous situations.

Due to their supposedly ‘innate sense of direction’, their ‘stealthiness’, and ‘warlike temperament’, American Indians would be dispatched as scouts, runners, and snipers—all of which carried especially high casualty rates. Native valor in these and other roles was also portrayed as evidence of Indian ‘savagery’.

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

Racial Stereotyping

Consider the ways in which Native people were supposedly celebrated in the pages of the Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the armed forces. A story carrying the headline: ’13 Redskin Tribes in Single Company’. In this story, the reporter made reference to “a species of American fighter whose reputation for scalping the enemy sent the Germans running. They fought in true woodsman style and reverted to typical Indian tactics, showing almost utter contempt for the enemy’s machine gun fire,” the author added, “gunning down Huns as coolly as if they were shooting a deer.”

Many other stories convey the same message. One headline read: ‘Yank Indian Was Heap Big Help in Winning the War’. Another declared: ‘American Redskin Knew No Equal in Patrol Work and Scouting’. And yet another proclaimed, ‘Ute War Whoop Signals Triumph Over Crafty Hun’, with the subhead: ‘Chief Ross, Who Saluted Once and Says, “Ugh”, Shines as Scout’.

Acceptance of Assimilation?

Racial thinking played a big role in defining American Indian service. For many outsiders looking in, Native patriotism—in the  form  of  serving  their  country— was simultaneously perceived as an abandonment of tribalism and an acquiescence to being conquered. Service, in other words, became both a marker of Indians’ innate savagery and their acceptance of assimilation.

This catch-22, then, left almost no place in the public sphere for Indians to serve in the military as real people and on their own terms. With military service being characterized in such restrictive ways, what place  could  Native people possibly expect to have in the post-war United States? What implications would the war have for ongoing contests over the meaning of citizenship and sovereignty?

These were precisely the questions taken up by a generation of American Indian intellectuals that came to the fore during the early decades of the 20th century.

Learn more about Native America in the 1900s.

Society of American Indians

Founded in 1911, the Society of American Indians (SAI) was the first national American Indian rights organization run by and for American Indians. The SAI took stands on a wide variety of issues, but the organization focused its attention on raising awareness of the deplorable state of reservations, revealing corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the local and national levels, and advocating for U.S. citizenship.

Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca anthropologist, and a Yavapai physician named Carlos Montezuma both held that U.S. citizenship and reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs were, if not prerequisites for serving in the war, necessary outcomes.

Extending Citizenship

Carlos Montezuma staked out a more radical position. In addition to demanding the extension of U.S. citizenship, he argued for the complete abolition of the Indian Bureau—the agency he saw as the primary cause of poverty, powerlessness, and dependency in Native America.

World War I ended in November 1918. The following year, Congress responded to appeals such as these by extending the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship to all American Indian veterans in 1919. Then in 1924, Congress passed the Snyder Act, which made all American Indians citizens of the United States.

Common Questions about Racial Stereotyping of Native Americans

Q. Who were the Code Talkers?

The Code Talkers were Native Americans who contributed to the war was as code talkers. They used their languages to send and receive cryptographic messages.

Q. During World War I, why were Native Americans put in dangerous situations?

Native Americans were viewed on the basis of racial stereotype by commanding officers. Due to their supposedly ‘innate sense of direction’, their ‘stealthiness’, and ‘warlike temperament’, American Indians would be dispatched as scouts, runners, and snipers—all of which carried especially high casualty rates.

Q. How did race thinking affect the thinking about citizenship of Native Americans?

Native patriotism—in the form of serving their country—became both a marker of Indians’ innate savagery and their acceptance of assimilation.

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