MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — During November, Americans celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month. On Nov. 11, Americans also celebrate Veterans Day. Through these two observances, Americans can celebrate not only the significant contributions of American Indians and Alaska natives to our heritage and culture but also their contribution to this country’s defense.
The original idea to recognize the American Indian originated with the Boy Scouts of America in 1915. By 1950, several states had established an American Indian Day, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford declared October 10-16 as “Native American Awareness Week.” Finally, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress, officially proclaiming November as National American Indian Month.
At one time, many Americans thought only of “Indian” raids during the Frontier Wars of the 1700s and 1800s. Yet, American Indians have greatly contributed to the heritage and culture of this country. For example, many consider Jim Thorpe, whose mother was a Sac and Fox Indian, one of America’s greatest athletes. Also, Maria Tallchief, whose father was Osage, received global recognition as America’s first prima ballerina.
Additionally, American Indians have honorably served in all U.S. armed services since the American Revolution. American Indians served as scouts during the Frontier Wars, fought on both sides during the Civil War, and were with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, Cuba, in 1898.
During World War I, about 12,000 American Indians distinguished themselves in the brutal fighting in France. Approximately 600 of these were Choctaw and Cherokee Indians who served with the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division. Four of them received France’s Croix de Guerre and others received Britain’s Church War Cross for gallantry for acts of heroism in combat.
Over 21,000 American Indians, including 800 women, served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, compiling an outstanding combat record. In November 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force’s Office of Indian Affairs reported that 71 American Indians received the Air Medal, 51 the Silver Star, 47 the Bronze Star, and 34 the Distinguished Flying Cross. Seven received the Medal of Honor, three posthumously.
Perhaps, the most famous group of American Indian servicemen during World War II was the Navajo Codetalkers who served as Marines in the Western Pacific. They provided secure communications for Marine ground operations, using a code developed from their native language. The Japanese military never broke the code, and the Navajo Codetalkers played a pivotal role in saving countless lives and hastening the war’s end in the Pacific.
Marine Cpl. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, was one of the six men who raised the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, an event captured in the Marine Corps Memorial near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
Over the years, thousands of Air Force members and their families served at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, named after Maj. Gen. Clarence Tinker, who was one-eighth Osage Indian. Tinker, the first American Indian to be promoted to general officer, died on a flying mission after the battle of Midway in June 1942.
During our history, 30 American Indians (16 during the Frontier Wars, seven during World War II, five in the Korean War, and two in the Vietnam War) received the Medal of Honor, America’s highest and most prestigious award for heroism in combat above and beyond the call of duty.
American Indians and non-American Indians lived, worked, fought and died together in the U.S. armed forces. In doing so, they learned from each other.
“There was a camaraderie (in the Air Force),” said Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Cheyenne veteran of Korea and former senator and representative from Colorado, “that transcends ethnicity when you serve your country overseas in wartime.”
As we celebrate National American Indian Month and Veterans Day this November, let’s remember the thousands of American Indians who have honorably served in this country’s armed forces throughout its history.
Editor’s note: This commentary was first published Nov. 19, 2015.