World War II and the onset of the atomic age transformed the lives of Native American men and women. Their experiences paralleled those of many other Americans and yet remained distinct from them. Let’s take a look on the home front and consider how Word War II brought both opportunities and challenges to Indian individuals and tribal communities.
Native Americans Present a United Front
By the late 1930s, overseas aggression had increased. And, as early as 1939, some Natives Americans took symbolic action to help the nation present a united front abroad despite cultural differences at home.
For instance, once the swastika—an ancient symbol of friendship, peace, and good luck— gained its association with anti-Semitism during the 1930s, many American Indians abandoned it. This included the 45th Infantry Division, which consisted of a large number of Native people from Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In 1939, the 45th replaced a shoulder patch featuring a yellow swastika set against a red background and went to war under another Native American sign, the Thunderbird.
The following year, Navajo, Tohono O’odham, Apache, and Hopi people adopted a resolution in which they renounced the use of the swastika on their blankets, baskets, art objects, sand paintings, and clothing because it had been—in their words—desecrated by another nation of people.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Pearl Harbor Prompted a Wave of Patriotism among the Natives
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States assumed a war footing. And, in some areas, a wave of patriotism washed over communities. American Indians demonstrated support by purchasing some $50 million in war bonds, and planting Victory Gardens to keep the cost of food down, which saved the military money to supply troops overseas.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency charged with carrying out the federal government’s various relations with tribal nations, also negotiated leases that allowed for the exploitation of tribal agricultural and grazing lands, timber stands, and subsurface minerals, such as oil, coal, gas, and manganese.
Japanese Internment Camps on Native Reservations
The practice of leasing tribal land in the name of patriotic duty also brought Japanese internment to Native America. Indian Commissioner John Collier volunteered to lease tribal lands.
Thus, despite opposition, two internment centers were established. The largest one, located on the Mohave and Chemehuevi’s Colorado River Indian Reservation in Arizona, housed 17,800 Japanese and Japanese American residents at its height. The second center consisted of two camps on the Akimel O’odham’s Gila River Indian Reservation and held 13,300 detainees at its height.
Internment Camps Displaced Native Americans
Though Collier expected that the tribes would benefit from internal improvements such as road construction, the cultivation of agricultural lands, and the development of dormitories and barracks, they didn’t. At Gila River, the War Relocation Authority never built the promised road, and at Colorado River, only enough land was cultivated to support subsistence farming, and the buildings that were constructed were torn down after internment ended in 1945. Native communities not just received displaced peoples in internment camps. They were also displaced and forced to live in internment camps.
This is precisely what happened after the Japanese invaded the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands in June 1942, in one of the relatively unknown stories of World War II.
The Fate of Aleuts
The Japanese occupied Attu Island, taking 42 Aleuts prisoner. The United States, citing military necessity, forced approximately 900 Aleuts living west of Unimak Island from their homes and into dilapidated dormitories at abandoned fish canneries and mines in remote areas of southeastern Alaska. There, they lived in squalor, without adequate food, heat, or shelter, and in the absence of medical care. At least 10 percent of the internees died.
In May 1944, the survivors returned to find that their personal and community property had been looted, vandalized, and destroyed and that military equipment and hazardous debris remained strewn about the islands. It would take more than four decades to receive compensation and begin the restoration.
Learn more about the Native American heroes of the WWII.
In August 1942, the US government seized more than the 300,000 acres in the northwest corner of the Lakota reservation for an Air Force aerial gunnery and bombing range. More than 100 Lakotas were given less than two weeks to leave their homes, and many wound up in tents and slum areas of neighboring towns and cities.
Hattie Twiss, one of the evictees, resisted, only to have a federal official tell her that because it was wartime, the Lakotas didn’t have any rights. It would take more than a decade to secure individual compensation, and the cleanup of the bombing range, which remained in use for another three decades, was not considered complete until late 2014.
Leading the Way for Pan-tribal Organization
In addition to contributing to political mobilization at the tribal level, the war also accelerated pan-tribal organization efforts. In November 1944, for instance, 80 delegates from 50 tribes and associations in 27 states met to establish an organization called the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
The NCAI envisioned itself as a tribal united nations that would provide a way for Indians to express their shared concerns with one voice. In keeping with the notion of a double victory, the NCAI’s initial platform called for Native inclusion in the G.I. Bill, the guarantee of voting rights in state elections, and an end to legal and de facto segregation. The NCAI also emphasized respect for tribal sovereignty, cultural pluralism, and treaty rights. The organization included in its initial resolutions a call for an Indian Claims Commission to provide restitution for treaty violations and other outstanding claims against the federal government.
Common Questions about the Impact of World War II on Native Americans
The swastika symbol had wide currency in Native America. However, once it gained its association with anti-Semitism during the 1930s, many American Indians abandoned it.
Many Natives demonstrated support by purchasing some $50 million in war bonds, and planting Victory Gardens to keep the cost of food down, which saved the military money to supply troops overseas.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) was established in November 1944. It envisioned itself as a tribal united nations that would provide a way for Indians to express their shared concerns with one voice.