The Second World War changed the world as we see it now in so many ways than one. It certainly changed things for the Native Americans. It brought political activism. Many Natives actively participated in the war, and their role as code talkers is widely acknowledged. But, were they able to adjust with the advancements that came post-war? Let’s find out.
World War II had brought political activism among the Natives, and along with it came cultural revitalization in the form of warrior societies, dances, songs, and ceremonies. In the Pacific Northwest, Makah fathers danced in traditional masks and regalia to celebrate the return of their sons from World War II. The Lakotas wrote new flag songs or songs that are made to honor soldiers, celebrating the sacrifices made by their kin and victory over Germany and Japan.
Similarly, in Oklahoma, Kiowa women established the Kiowa War Mothers, the Carnegie Victory Club, and the Purple Heart Club to recognize and honor their warriors by holding Scalp and Victory, Round, Shuffle, and War Mothers’ dances. After the war, Gus Palmer, Sr., a Kiowa veteran who flew in 21 bombing missions, spearheaded the revitalization of the Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society in honor of his brother, Lyndreth Palmer, who was killed in France, as well as all other Kiowa veterans.
But, did the end of the war in August 1945 bring the desired double victory to Native America? That is, in addition to defeating fascism abroad, did it also defeat racism at home?
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Atomic Age Brought Trouble for Natives
From the Manhattan Project forward, the atomic age that was inaugurated by the war had everything to do with Native America, and it is difficult to find a victory for Native people in it. For the Yakama in Washington, the U.S. drive to develop atomic weapons brought the Hanford Nuclear Reservation along the Columbia River and the contamination of the soil and water from radioactive waste. For the Western Shoshone, it brought the Nevada Test Site and detonations of thousands of nuclear bombs on ancestral lands taken in violation of the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.
For the Navajo and Lakota, the end of World War II and the beginning of the atomic age brought underground and open pit uranium mining, chronic health problems for those who worked in them, and ongoing environmental concerns in the areas surrounding them. Indeed, the Navajo came to refer to uranium as yellow dirt and saw in it the ultimate disrespect of modern industrial society for Mother Earth.
Learn more about the contemporary struggles of the Natives.
The Life of Ira Hayes
Ira Hayes was an Akimel O’odham man from the Gila River Reservation in Arizona. Born in 1923—and raised on the Gila River Reservation—Ira Hayes’s life mirrored many of the transformative changes that were taking place all through the early to mid-20th century. As a young man, he worked in the Indian Division of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. He enlisted in the Marines in August 1942, at the age of 19. And in February 1945, he took part in the assault on Iwo Jima.
Ira Hayes was one of the soldiers captured in the iconic photograph of the flag raising at the top of Mount Suribachi after it was seized on February 23. Three soldiers in the photo were subsequently killed on Iwo Jima. Hayes, along with two other survivors, returned home as celebrities and helped drum up support for the seventh war bond drive in May and June of 1945. But Ira Hayes did not want to leave his comrades, and he rejected the idea that he was a hero. Pointing to the men who gave their lives during the campaign, some 30 American Indians among them, he argued that “the real heroes are still on Iwo Jima”.
Learn more about Native Americans’ involvement in WWI.
Native Soldiers’ Failure to Adjust to Civilian Life
The difficulty that Ira Hayes faced upon his return home, and his attempted adjustment to civilian life, suggests how far short Native American service members fell of attaining that double victory after World War II. During the early 1950s, Ira Hayes attempted to take advantage of the Bureau of Indian Affairs voluntary relocation program. But Hayes struggled with alcoholism, and, as he found in Los Angeles and Chicago, support for relocation was inadequate.
Ira Hayes finally wound up back on the Gila River Reservation picking cotton. It was there that he died one January night in 1955. Not long after Hayes’s passing, folk singer Peter La Farge wrote these potent words in regard to the tragic end of his life, “Call him drunken Ira Hayes. He won’t answer anymore. Not the whiskey-drinking Indian, or the Marine who went to war.”
The Second World War and the world it made transformed the lives of American Indian men and women, and it forever altered the demographic, political, cultural, and physical landscapes of Native America. But it didn’t bring a double victory, so much as it brought an uncertain one.
Common Questions about Life Post-WWII for Native Americans
Ira Hayes was an Akimel O’odham man from the Gila River Reservation in Arizona. He enlisted in the Marines, and in February 1945, he took part in the assault on Iwo Jima. He returned home as a celebrity, but was unable to adjust to civilian life and struggled with alcoholism. After many attempts at relocation, he wound up back on the reservation picking cotton, where he eventually died.
The Kiowa women established the Kiowa War Mothers, the Carnegie Victory Club, and the Purple Heart Club to recognize and honor their warriors by holding Scalp and Victory, Round, Shuffle, and War Mothers’ dances.
For the Natives, the atomic age brought more trouble. The radioactive waste from the nuclear sites contaminated their soil and water. At the Nevada Test Site, detonations of thousands of nuclear bombs on ancestral lands was in violation of the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. The underground and open pit uranium mining resulted in chronic health problems for those who worked in them and environmental concerns in the areas surrounding them.