Reactions and contributions to the First World War

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., University of North Carolina

Dominant American federal policies directed at American Indians since the 1880s advanced a vision for the future that one might call the citizenship of uniformity. Some of the more intrusive policies have been implemented by the Office of Indian Affairs. However, despite the uniformly unfair treatment inflicted on them, the reaction of different tribes to American involvement in World War I was quite varied.

Native Americans participated in the war effort in a number of ways, ranging from direct service in the forces to work in the shipyards. (Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

Indian Affairs Office

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the agency responsible for exercising federal responsibilities towards tribes, promoted the assimilation of Native Americans. This included local federal agents disrupting the ability of tribal councils and works councils to be autonomous and the imposition of Indian tort courts. The courts were supposed to deal with criminal actions and resolve disputes between members of the tribe. But BIA officials used them to punish Indians for breaking laws imposed by the federal government, such as bans on traditional dances and ceremonies and plural marriages that non-Indians considered uncivilized.

The BIA controlled almost every aspect of Aboriginal life on reserve. In the name of civilization, citizenship and self-reliance, ironically, it perpetuates poverty, helplessness and dependence. Now, based on all of this, one would have expected a fairly uniform – and largely unfavorable – Indigenous response to American involvement in WWI. But it was not. Instead, when the United States entered the war in 1917, American Indians responded in various ways.

Native support for WWI

On the home front, many Aboriginal people supported the war. They planted victory gardens, made monetary and in-kind contributions to the Red Cross, the YMCA and the Salvation Army, and purchased war stamps and some $ 25 million in bonds. Liberty. This monetary donation is even more remarkable when it is juxtaposed with the endemic poverty in the indigenous communities during these years.

Men and women also served the United States as laborers, leaving their reserve homes in search of new work opportunities. This included such things as assembling military vehicles at the Ford Motor Company plant in Michigan and working at the Hog Island Shipyard in Philadelphia.

During this time, some 4 million acres of tribal and allotted land has been leased to non-Indians. In the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, the Lakota rented three-quarters of their pastures so that non-Indians could graze cattle and sheep to produce beef and mutton to send to the ‘foreigner.

Learn more about the allocation of Native American lands.

The natives volunteer for the war

Black and white photo of Native American students during math class at Carlisle Indian School.
Federal residential schools, such as the Carlisle Indian School, instilled an American form of red-blooded patriotism in American Indians. (Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

But the American Indians gave even more than their money, their labor and their land to the war effort. Between 12,000 and 16,000 Aboriginal men and women served in the armed forces, a number equivalent to about a quarter of all eligible adults. Despite the fact that many American Indians were not US citizens and therefore not subject to selective service laws, more than 17,000 registered for the project. 3,500 others have volunteered to serve.

Recruiters placed special emphasis on Federal Residential Schools, where a model of military education prevailed, and the curriculum instilled a form of red-blooded American patriotism. In these schools, indigenous youth learned that citizenship required them to serve their country. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School alone provided 205 soldiers.

The reasons given by American Indians for serving in the United States military provide windows into the multiple meanings they ascribed to citizenship and sovereignty, both American and tribal.

This is a transcript of the video series Indigenous peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Patriotism and American Indians

Certainly, some American Indians probably saw themselves as patriotic Americans fighting for their country. Fred Fast Horse, a Lakota was right. “I wanted to go and fight the Germans,” he told an interviewer, “because they would come here and destroy our free government.” John Victor Adams, a Siletz Indian from Oregon, said: “I felt that no American could be or should be better than the first American.”

Joseph Cloud, a Lakota from Sisseton, South Dakota, said, “My nation gave generously to the military… We knew America’s life depended on its men, and we are Americans.

Here, the terms “my nation” and “we are American” suggest that Cloud did not view American and tribal citizenship as mutually exclusive. Instead, we might think of it as a form of hybrid patriotism.

Learn about how Native Americans adapted to the changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Fight as an independent

Other indigenous peoples fought in the war without seeing it at all like the United States. The Onondaga and Oneida of the Iroquois Confederacy took this position when in July 1918 they declared war on the Triple Alliance as independent nations and agreed to fight as allies, not subjects, of the United States.

Another group of American Indians fought for the land itself. A Yakama veteran explained that his people had such a strong love for their homeland that it enabled them to overcome feelings of mistrust of the US government. And surely there were Native Americans who joined the service because it provided an opportunity for excitement and adventure, or to bring honor to themselves and their families.

Oppose war

On the other hand, there was open resistance to conscription among the Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo in the Southwest, the White Earth Ojibwe in Minnesota, the Muscogee Creek in Oklahoma, and the Iroquois in New York State. . The conflict over attribution – and the threat that the destruction of communal land ownership posed to control over tribal resources – largely contributed to this dissent.

In the pages of his diary The Tomahawk, Ojibwa White Earth journalist Gustave Beaulieu invoked the widely held idea that World War I was a “war of the rich” and a “fight of the poor”. Beaulieu asked why the Native people should fight for a government in collusion with the capitalist interests that were attacking Indian lands.

Common Questions About Native Americans During World War I

Q. How were the Indian tort courts used to persecute Native Americans?

The Indian tort courts was supposed to deal with criminal actions and resolve disputes between members of the tribe. But the Indian Affairs Office officials used them to punish Indians for breaking laws imposed by the federal government.

Q. How many Native Americans served in World War I?

Between 12,000 and 16,000 Indigenous men and women served in the armed forces during First World War.

Q. Why did some Native American tribes issue separate declarations of war against the Triple Alliance?

In July 1918, some American by birth tribes declared war on the Triple Alliance as independent nations. The reasoning was that by declaring war independently, they would establish their independent right to act as a nation.

Keep reading
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The Modoc and the last Indian wars


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