Published: 30 November 2023
By Jordan Ginder and Ellora Larsen
via the National Museum of the United States Army web site
In WWI, Native Americans began to use their languages for secret U.S. military codes. Today, their legacy continues as they serve with honor, dedication and distinction.
In the words of W. Richard West, Jr., the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, “Language is central to cultural identity. It is the code containing the subtleties and secrets of cultural life. In many ways, language determines thought.” In 1918, U.S. Army officials strategized a way to use Native languages as a code after hearing Indigenous Soldiers talking in their language. They hoped messages coded in Native languages would stop the possibility of enemy interception. The Native Code Talkers of World War I used their languages to aid the war effort at a time when there was also a push to strip away Native cultural identities and languages.
Indigenous Soldiers at War
Native American military involvement traces back to the American Revolution and continues today. Many tribes sided with the British during the Revolution and the War of 1812 to support their established trading partnerships. Some tribes, like the Oneida or Tuscarora, sided with the colonists due to their proximity to colonial towns. The goal of all tribes was to protect their lands from continued colonization. This motivation carried over to the estimated 3,503 Native Soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Mark Hirsch, the co-author of the book “Why We Serve, Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces,” poses an important question: “Why would (Native peoples) fight for America which has a long history of colonizing, massacring, and breaking treaty promises? Given that history, why is it that we have this remarkable legacy of Native American military service?”
As there is not one Indigenous experience, there is not a sole reason why Native peoples choose to enlist. Some historians have tied Native American military service to the myth of the warrior tradition. The myth says that all Native peoples have an “innate warrior ability.” While some tribes do have their own warrior tradition, others follow more pacifistic customs.
The military provides some Soldiers the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families. Many Indigenous Soldiers see their service as a way to protect their homelands, while others join for economic opportunities. There are a multitude of reasons why Native Soldiers join the military but Kevin Gover, previous director of the National Museum of the American Indian, said, “they are acknowledging the mistreatment their tribes have suffered at the hands of the United States, yet they still imagine a different and better tribal life in the future.”
Read the entire article on the National Museum of the United States Army web site.
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