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Understanding Indigenous Culture in North Dakota Series: Indigenous Veterans

On November 11, the United States will honor all military, alive or deceased, on Veteran’s Day and Canada will hold similar country wide respect for Remembrance Day.

Native Americans have served in the U.S. military in every major conflict for more than 200 years. Indigenous people serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average and have served with distinction in every major conflict for over 200 years. Considering the population of the U.S. is approximately 1.4 percent Native and the military is 1.7 percent Native (not including those that did not disclose their identity), Native people have the highest per-capita involvement of any population to serve in the U.S. military.

They also have a higher concentration of women servicemembers than all other groups. Nearly 20 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives servicemembers were women, while 15.6 percent of all other servicemembers were women.

Many indigenous men and women have served for their respective countries within numerous wars and missions to include World War I (July 1914- November 1918), World War II (September 1939-August 1945), Korean War (June 1950- July 1953), Vietnam war (November 1955-April 1975), Operation Desert Storm (August 1990-February 1991), Iraq war (March 2003-December 2011), Afghanistan war (October 2001-August 2021), etc.

Many Indigenous tribal nations have a multifaced warrior system that has existed for thousands of years. Warfare customs, strategies and diplomacy are part of a warrior tradition that is older than the United States military. Within this tradition, indigenous people have brought valuable skills to the military such as patience, stealth, and marksmanship. These developed traits were a mainstay of daily life within indigenous communities where hunting was critical to survival. Specific attributes utilized in World War I and II were talented snipers (military sharpshooters), and reconnaissance scouts (persons who covertly gathered information on enemy positions).

One specific role that indigenous military provided in World War II was code talkers. The Navajo code talkers have become legendary for creating a special code using their indigenous language to transmit sensitive information during World War II. The Navajo people’s unique and largely unwritten language made it an ideal fit for creating a code, and 29 Navajo men initially joined the Marine Corps for this highly sensitive operation. By the end of the war, there were approximately 400 Native Code Talkers in the military from the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche tribes, all translating encrypted messages in their native tongues from the front lines in real time as they received them.

Although Japanese forces were incredibly adept at breaking codes throughout the war, they never broke the Navajo Code. It was this code that helped the United States win the war in the Pacific in 1945.

As we honor our veterans who bravely served to preserve our way of life, please take time within your year to positively impact the issues they face. These include homelessness, lack of mental health intervention, and health issues of all kinds. Consider volunteering within your community, donating to an organization that supports veterans, or purchasing from a veteran owned business.

Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”

Goal: Students will appreciate the contributions of Veterans, especially those representing Tribal Peoples.

Students will view the video of Billy Mills winning the gold medal.

The teacher will introduce students to his CV to show all his accomplishments, especially as a veteran.

Teachers will pose the following questions: Who was Billy Mills? What challenges did he face in his life? How did those challenges help him be a true warrior?

Activity: If possible, the teacher will arrange for students to visit a local senior center. Prior to the visit, students will create 3 interview questions to ask a local veteran. This can be done as a group or individually. Thank you cards can be made to present to the veteran following the interviews.

Teachers can also use the following link to discuss the significance of eagle feathers:

· Veterans 2022 on Vimeo

· Native American Veterans Association

· A History of Military Service: Native Americans in the U.S. Military Yesterday and Today

· American Indian Veterans Have Highest Record of Military Service


· (Photo: Red Basket’s Great Grandfather)


· Indigenous war veteran Tommy Prince honoured with new stamp

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