A time to celebrate and remember
November is National Native American Month

By Charlotte Raub


Display case of "Native Americans in Defense of Our Nation" exhibit at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.   (Official Department of Defense photograph by Helene C. Stikkel)


Sharp Nose (Ta-qua-wi), a Northern Arapaho chief, wearing U.S. Army captainís bars.  (U.S. Army photograph, 1884)


The Navajo language was used as a base for a code during the war with the Japanese. This code was never broken and remained a military secret until the late 1960s.  (Official Department of Defense photograph by Helene C. Stikkel)


More than 400 young Navajos became code talkers in the U.S. Marine Corps before WWIIís end, and were an integral part in the success at Iwo Jima and many other places throughout the Pacific. Here one of the code talkers looks at a display, unveiled on September 17, 1992 at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.  (Official Department of Defense photograph by Helene C. Stikkel)

November is a very special month for Americans. Itís the time when we reflect on the many things we are thankful for, such as the liberties we enjoy and our rich and varied cultural heritage.

The basic tenets of our Constitution and many precepts of our way of life have roots in the heritage of Native Americans " the first American people. Many Native American tribes practiced representative democracy as a means of governing, since leadership involved decision-making by councils of elected spokesmen or unanimous agreement. Indeed, Native Americans have passed on a legacy of environmental conservation based on their philosophy of respect for the earth and "taking only what they needed" to survive.

Throughout our nationís history, Native Americans have laid down their lives to help defend and preserve Americaís democratic ideals. They have proudly and courageously served in every major conflict from the Revolutionary War to the present, so it is appropriate that National Native American Month is celebrated during November, the same month in which Veterans Day is observed.

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the term "Native American" refers to the 2.3 million people of the 542 recognized tribes, including 197 Alaskan Native groups living in the United States. This is about 9 percent of the U.S. total population.

About 11,000 of the 1.4 million (active duty) members of the U.S. Armed Forces are Native Americans, with approximately 3,000 of them serving in the Army. Of the 711,000 Department of Defense civilians worldwide, some 6,700 are Native American.

Although Native Americans have fought for the nation since the Revolutionary War, it is significant to note that they were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act. During the American Revolution, the Oneida and Tuscarora nations as well as the Creek and Cherokees aided the colonists in winning their independence from England.

During the Civil War, Native Americans fought in both the Confederate and Union armies and many units gained recognition for their valor. Following the Civil War, the War Department established the U.S. Indian Scouts as part of the enlisted ranks and by 1867, there were 474 Indians serving.

About 8,000 American Indians were inducted into the service during World War I, although about 17,000 had registered for the draft. In addition to the valor they displayed in battle, Native Americans played a unique role as communicators during World War I. Signal soldiers of Choctaw descent were used to transmit messages of troop movements in their native language as a means of thwarting enemy attempts to monitor U.S. communications. Since many Native American dialects and languages are unwritten, there was little chance, if any, that the enemy could decipher the messages.

At the beginning of World War II, more than 25,000 Native Americans were serving in the military and many more were mobilized with the call-up of the National Guard and Reserve units.

During the war, Native Americans won 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Medals of Honor. One of the most highly decorated units was the 158th Regiment.

A war of words

As in World War I, some Native Americans performed the dual role of cryptographer/signal corpsman during World War II. Perhaps the most unique were those Marine signal units that used Navajo Indians, known as "Navajo Code Talkers," to "encode" messages in their native tongue.

The Code Talker program began in May 1942, as a result of recommendations made by Philip Johnston, a Los Angeles civil engineer. Johnston learned to speak fluent Navajo while living among the tribe as the son of a missionary. Having served in World War I, Johnston knew the Germans were completely dumbfounded by messages sent in the native Choctaw language, and he believed Navajo could be used similarly to send secure transmissions. Like many Native American languages, Navajo is an unwritten language with dialects specific only to the United States. This made it an ideal candidate for encoding.

The result was that Navajo was the only "code" during the war that was never broken. The Japanese chief of intelligence admitted they were able to break the code used by the (then) U.S. Army Air Force, but not that of the Code Talkers.

Although no firm figures exist, it is estimated that between 10,000 to 15,000 Native Americans saw action in Korea. Included among the proud veterans of this war is Cheyenne Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who is now a United States senator for Colorado.

As with every preceding conflict, there was strong Native American participation in the Vietnam War. Approximately 42,500 Native Americans served in the Armed Forces from 1965-1975, with about 11,000 of these serving in the Army.

During the Gulf War, more than 3,000 Native Americans served in the Persian Gulf theater of operations. Three made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Native Americans have always been an integral part of U.S. fighting forces. According to the 1990 census, about 190,000 Native American (including Eskimo and Aleut) veterans live in the United States, and three-fourths of these are wartime veterans.

Forty years after the end of World War II, Raymond Nakai, former Navajo Code Talker, summed up Native American feelings about participation in the war.

"Many people ask why we fight the white manís war. Our answer is that we are proud to be Americans. Weíre proud to be American Indians. We always stand ready when our country needs us."

Charlotte Raub is the command information officer in the Public Affairs Office at headquarters, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Fort Belvoir, Va.


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Last Updated: 14 December, 1998