Native Americans important to nation’s military

Published 9:51 am Thursday, November 14, 2019

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It was great to see our veterans – at least some of them – at Monday’s observance of Veterans Day. We still have a few World War II veterans among us, but those numbers are dwindling by the day.

As always, the turnout was disappointing. Sure, many people had to work. That’s understandable. Others got the day off. Children were out of school, but few were there other than ones who were part of the program. We can do better than that.

To make up for it, thank a veteran – any veteran. Do it in person. Facebook is great for posting photos of family members who served our country, but it is best to do it in person. Let’s make every day Veterans Day.

Watching television later that evening, I came upon a show about Native Americans and their service in the American military, a PBS documentary called “The Warrior Tradition.”

That’s right. Native Americans. Indians back in the day. You’ve read about those days. They were here long before the white man – or black man.

They were proud. They were warriors.

Native Americans have fought for the United States in every war since the 1800s.

It’s hard to imagine living for generations on a piece of land, and then someone else comes in and pretty much just takes it. And we weren’t always nice about it. Think about some of the bad names we call each other these days. I’m sure it was worse for the Native Americans back in the day.

But when it came time to sign up for World War I, a higher percentage of Native Americans than any other ethnic group volunteered to fight for the United States. Ever since, the percentage of natives signing up for the military has surpassed that of any other group.

Why? They’re warriors. They believe in what’s right. They believe in freedom. And while we literally ripped their freedom out from under their feet, they realize that our way of life is better than that of other countries. It’s worth preserving.

That television show had an interview with an elderly member of the Navajo tribe. He talked about growing up. When he went to boarding school, he was told never to speak the Navajo language. Never, under any circumstances. He recalled that later during World War II, communications in the Pacific Theatre were being stolen. The enemy knew our plans before they were carried out.

But there was a group of Navajo soldiers who still knew their native language. They came up with 599 Navajo “code” words. They took them into battle, and on Aug. 7, 1942, the Marines landed on Guadalcanal with 13 Navajo code people. Records indicate that as many as 25,000 Native Americans fought in World War II. For many, it was their first time off a reservation, and their first chances at interacting with those who had taken their ancestors’ land. They served alongside white men, not in segregated units.

After the war, the military began to recruit Native Americans.

During World War I, natives were not considered citizens of the United States and therefore were not drafted. Approximately 10,000 volunteered.

It wasn’t easy for those native warriors. Many of their own people resented the fact they were fighting for the country that took their land. Others were just against the wars. And the white man’s prejudices didn’t stop just because they had fought for the same country.

It reminds me of the Peter Lafarge song, made famous by Johnny Cash, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”

“… Gather ‘round me people

There’s a story I would tell

‘Bout a brave young Indian

You should remember well

From the land of the Pima Indian

A proud and noble band

Who farmed the Phoenix Valley

In Arizona land …”

The song goes on to tell about that famous day on Iwo Jima, when the American flag was raised on top of the hill. Among those holding up the flag was Ira Hayes. He didn’t come home to a welcome fitting of such a hero. We should have done better by him back in the day, and should continue to treat our military men and women as what they are.


– Mike Barnhardt