Native Americans Have Always Answered the Call to Serve: National VFW Day 2020

National Veterans of Foreign Wars Day, September 29, acknowledges the men and women who have served honorably in the U.S. military overseas in war or other imminent danger. The VFW traces its roots to the late 19th century and efforts to secure rights and benefits for veterans of the Spanish–American and Philippine–American wars. Its establishment, however, dates to 1914. A few years later, the participation of American Indians in the U.S. military during World War I helped bring down the last obstacles to their recognition as American citizens. Here, the museum looks at the mission and vision of the VFW and Native Americans’ extraordinary record of service in combat.

Native American veterans of the Vietnam War stand in honor as part of the color guard at the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. November 11, 1990, Washington, D.C.  (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Native American veterans of the Vietnam War stand in honor as part of the color guard at the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. November 11, 1990, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

National Veterans of Foreign Wars Day, September 29, acknowledges men and women who have served honorably in a foreign war or overseas operation recognized by a campaign medal, received hostile fire, or qualified for imminent danger pay. Active-duty servicemembers who meet the criteria are also welcome. Members today include veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other expeditionary campaigns, as well as those who have served during occupations. Family members of eligible servicemen and women show their support through the VFW Auxiliary.

The organization’s history dates to 1899, when the American Veterans of Foreign Service and the National Society of the Army of the Philippines were organized to secure rights and benefits for veterans of the Spanish–American War (1898) and Philippine–American War (1899–1902). The two organizations merged in 1914, creating the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. The VFW was chartered by Congress in 1936.

The VFW defines its role in its mission and vision statements:

To foster camaraderie among United States veterans of overseas conflicts. To serve our veterans, the military, and our communities. To advocate on behalf of all veterans.

To ensure that veterans are respected for their service, always receive their earned entitlements, and are recognized for the sacrifices they and their loved ones have made on behalf of this great country.

Today, more than 1.6 million people belong to the VFW and VFW Auxiliary. They take part in service and social programs at more than 6,000 posts, including posts on American Indian reservations and in Native communities.

In the early 1900s, the warrior tradition of American Indians seemed to face near extinction. The last of the major conflicts over Native American lands had ended a generation before, when the Agreement of 1877 annexed the Sioux homelands—including Pahá Sápa, the Black Hills—and permanently established Indian reservations. With a handful of exceptions, Native warriors no longer engaged in battle to protect their homes, families, and way of life.

“Native Americans served in World War I even though they were not citizens of the United States.” —Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian

That changed in 1917, when the United States formally entered World War I. In need of a much larger military, the federal government began to promote enlistment, and shortly afterward, instituted the draft. It is estimated that more than 12,000 American Indians served in the U.S. military during the war. At a time when a third of Native Americans were not recognized as citizens of the United States, more than 17,000 Native American men registered with the Selective Service. An estimated 12,000 Native Americans joined the U.S. Armed Forces, according to the records of the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs. Between 3,000 and 6,000 Native Americans volunteered.

The largest group of Native service members came from Oklahoma. Members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma became the military’s first officially organized and trained group of American Indian code talkers. Students at the federal Indian boarding schools volunteered in large numbers—more than 200 from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School alone. Native Americans joined every branch of the military, including a number of Native women who volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps. Unlike African American servicemen and women, Native Americans were not segregated into special units, although there is evidence that they were often given unusually dangerous assignments: About 5 percent of Native combat soldiers were killed during World War I, compared to 1 percent of American soldiers overall.

Through the Citizenship Act of 1919, Congress granted U.S. citizenship to American Indians who had served, if they applied for it. Native Americans’ record of patriotism during the war became the catalyst for the broader Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which recognized all Native Americans born in the United States as citizens.

The United States’ entry into World War II brought large numbers of American Indian warriors back to the battlefield in defense of their homeland. More than 44,000 American Indians, out of a total Native American population of less than 400,000, served with distinction between 1941 and 1945 in all theaters of the war. Servicemen from more than 30 Native nations used their tribal languages as unbreakable codes to transmit vital communications. Among many Native heroes of the war is Ira Hayes (Pima [Akimel O'odham]), who grew up on his parents’ farm in the Gila River Indian Community of Arizona, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1942, and was one of six servicemen who raised the American flag over Iwo Jima, a moment immortalized at the Marine Corps Memorial.

“There is a camaraderie that transcends ethnicity when you serve your country overseas in wartime.”—Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne), Korea veteran

During the Korean War (1950–1953), battle-hardened Native American troops from World War II were joined by American Indians newly recruited to fight on foreign soil. Approximately 10,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. military during this period. Seven American Indians and Native Hawaiians received Medals of Honor for their bravery and sacrifice in Korea. My uncle, William Hall-Zotigh (Kiowa), proudly served in a MASH unit near Inchon and Taegu. Before his death, he was heavily involved in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and presided over funerals for veterans on behalf of the VFW.

Native American veterans participate in opening ceremonies during the 7th Annual Indiana Traditional Powwow. April 7, 2018, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy Hogan

Native Americans demonstrated their patriotism again during the Vietnam era. More than 42,000 Native Americans fought in Vietnam, more than 90 percent of them volunteers. Among the nearly 60 thousand names of individuals killed or missing in action on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall are 232 identified as Native Americans or Alaska Natives.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Natives in United States military took part in combat or other hostilities in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Private First Class Lori Piestewa (Hopi) was the first woman killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first Native American woman known to have died in combat overseas.

“I’m excited about the upcoming memorial. With the all-volunteer service, there are a lot of people who have not served or don’t understand what it means to serve. I guess I want people to recognize how often Native people have volunteered. From Alaska to the East Coast, through all the wars, Native people have always volunteered.” —Colonel Wayne Don (Cupig and Yupik), veteran of Bosnia and Afghanistan

According to the Department of Defense, more than 23,000 of the 1.2 million men and women on active duty in the U.S. military today are American Indians or Alaska Natives. With the completion of the National Native American Veterans Memorial on November 11, 2020, the museum will honor them and all Native veterans. The museum will announce the larger, ceremonial opening when it is possible for veterans and their families to take part.

The National Native American Veterans Memorial is currently under construction on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Congress charged the museum with creating this memorial to give all Americans the opportunity “to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans.” Their legacy deserves our recognition.

Join us in recognizing the members and mission of the VFW on social media using the hashtag #VFWDay.