Commentary - May 28, 2013
10:47 am
Wed May 29, 2013

Indians in the Military

On this day following Memorial Day I think it would be good to briefly consider some facts of American Indian involvement in the history of the US military.  I think would be good to consider that there may not be any such thing as American military history without American Indian history. 

As early as the 1600s during the Pequot War the British, who would eventually become the first Americans, were recruiting members of the Narragansett and Mohegan tribes to help them in the battle with the Pequots.  During the Revolutionary War Indians from various tribes served as scouts and soldiers on both the British and Revolutionary forces.  Though during this period numerous informal treaties were held between tribes and the colonies, the first official treaty was not signed between the newly created United States and a tribe until 1778, when the Delawares agreed to become military allies of the US in case the British ever attempted to regain their foothold in the country.  It was also during this time that George Washington noted Indian men would make good scouts and light infantry in the army.  Though it wasn’t until 1866 that Congress passed an act authorizing the president to enlist and employ Indians as scouts in the western territories, services for which they would be paid, Indians by then had been serving for decades as unofficial scouts for the US.  Of course in the midst of the passage of this act the Civil War was raging, and Indians of various tribes participated on the sides of both the North and the South.  For the next few decades members of various tribes in the western territories either enlisted or were hired as army scouts, and were seen as soldiers of the US government.  The scouts were issued old-pattern surplus uniforms, which were often worn as the scouts saw fit, which meant at times the US army uniforms were combined with items of clothing specific to that scout’s tribe.  Or, in the case of Apache scouts described in 1870 as wearing only “a muslin loin cloth, point-toed moccasins, and a hat of hawk feathers.”  A few years following this Crow scouts were described by an officer as wearing “an old black army hat with [the] top cut out and sides bound round with feathers, fur, and scarlet cloth.”  In other words, there has always been mingling.

By now of course we are in that period of American history known as the so-called Indian Wars in the west, and these scouts were invaluable assets to the army, both for their intimate knowledge of the vast expanses of Western terrain but also for their knowledge of the tribes the army was in conflict with.  It was also noted that, though the scouts were members of the army, they were largely indifferent to army rules and regulations, a fact I find particularly beautiful.  Beyond the knowledge the scouts carried was also the fact of their superiority in matters of war: Pawnee scout Luther H. North was quoted as saying, “Neither the Wild Tribes nor the government Indian Scouts ever adapted any of the white soldier’s tactics.  They thought their own much better.”  Another scout of this period was quoted as saying, “Uncle Sam’s boys are too slow for this business.”  I also think it’s worth saying that during this period, despite fears that scouts would betray their fellow soldiers, there is only one recorded incidence of such a thing occurring.  In the 1870s a group of Apache scouts turned on their fellow soldiers – and this because they’d been asked to campaign against their own people.  And of course on the other side of this equation, opposite these Indian scouts employed by the government, are the tribes that were at war with the United States over both territories and resources, a conflict that certainly continues today, although now it is arguably waged on paper. 

A fact I find particularly interesting is that of the insignia given in 1890 to the aforementioned Indian scouts.  The insignia consisted of two crossed, gold arrows.  The arrows were seen as a symbol of unconventional warfare, particularly in relation to unfamiliar Indian warfare tactics, now called guerilla tactics, first encountered several centuries earlier by the British following colonization.  This insignia, which was officially retired in 1939, was later incorporated in the US Special Forces crest, which consists of the two crossed arrows, now silver in color, a knife – a silent but deadly weapon also associated with Indian combat – and the Latin phrase “De Oppressor Liber.”  The phrase translates as, “To Free the Oppressed.”  We will, for today, disregard the irony of such a phrase in relation to American Indian history.  The Special Forces patch, which retains the knife but loses the arrows, is cut in the shape of an arrowhead, thus maintaining the original relationship, although only in idea, to the Indian scout insignia of the previous century.

Despite the fact that American Indians would not be forcibly made official legal citizens of the US until 1924, over 12,000 enlisted and served during WWI.  Over 44,000 enlisted and served during WWII, the most famous of which are the Navajo Code Talkers of the Pacific Theater.  What most Americans don’t know, however, about the practice of code talking is that its origins are found in WWI, when it was developed by native Choctaw speakers.  The relatively high numbers of enlistment continue through the 20th century, with over 10,000 participating in the Korean War, and over 86,000 enlisting during the Vietnam War.  Of those participating in Vietnam, over 90% volunteered.  In the 20th Century, on a per-capita basis, more American Indians have served in the military than any other group of people in the United States.

So with military history on our mind at this point in the season, in particular those individuals who have served, I would ask that you consider for a few moments that in some way American Indian history is very much a military history, and that perhaps there isn’t really a such a thing as American military history without American Indian history.  Which is another way of saying something much larger, I think: that there is no such thing as American history without American Indians.  I’m Sterling HolyWhiteMountain – thanks for listening.