Soldiers before Citizens
By Sherri Williams
News21 / Syracuse University
Headstones at Native American cemeteries tell the stories of warriors who fought for this country since its early days.
Alongside the graves of revered warriors Chief Joseph and Yellow Wolf, who battled white settlers to preserve Indian life and land, lay the lesser-known Native American soldiers who went to war to protect the United States.
Graves at the reservation cemeteries in Washington state mark some of the conflicts in which Native Americans served: WWII, Korea, Vietnam and even Grenada.
The tombs of veterans at the cemeteries across the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation also tell the proud and painful history of Native Americans in this country.
Fading WWI headstones sit among American flags, flowers and sun-burned grass at a cemetery in Inchelium, Wash.
Native Americans fought as soldiers before they were citizens. WWI ended in 1918. Native Americans were not awarded citizenship until 1924.
Despite the complex and catastrophic relationship Native Americans have had with the U.S. government, Indian soldiers rarely feel conflicted about fighting to protect this land because they respect it, veterans say.
"Every conflict that has come up, the native warrior has always been there," said Keith "Soy" Redthunder, 64, a Vietnam War veteran who grew up on the Colville reservation. “Once you put on that uniform you were fighting for the United States.”
There are at least 190,000 Native American veterans, according to U.S. Navy statistics. And 42 Native Americans have died in the war in Iraq as of June 5, according to Defense Department data.
On the Colville reservation, a 1.4 million-acre expanse in northeastern Washington state with 12 Native American tribes, veterans are viewed with reverence, said Arnie Holt, program manager for the Colville Tribe Veterans Program.
“Our veterans are very important to us,” Holt said. “They do give them the honor that they deserve. It’s a higher level of respect on the reservation. Off the reservation they do not know who the vets are.”
There are about 450 veterans living on the reservation who served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, Holt said.
While the respect for Native American veterans is evident among their people on the reservation, off the land the military contributions of Native Americans seem to go unnoticed, Holt said.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re invisible because we don’t get the recognition we deserve,” said Holt, 62, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam.
However, Native Americans’ military contributions, especially the Navajo Code Talkers, have been significant to the United States’ success during battle, said James D. "Standing Horse" Cates, chairman of the National Native Americans Veterans Association.
Native Americans were recruited by the military during WWII to use their language to communicate war strategies. Other codes used by the U.S. military had been deciphered by enemies, but they could not crack Native languages.
“The Japanese couldn’t use the code — that’s why they (code talkers) were so invaluable,” said Cates, 55, who spent 20 years in the Air Force. “That helped turn the tide. The American military was able to make advances because the Japanese weren’t able to make the code, and that stalled their plans. They weren’t able to make their objectives.”
For decades Redthunder has helped organize activities to honor veterans, including a Memorial Day service at the Nez Perce cemetery, where his brothers — who were also veterans — are buried. “No one from the VA is going to recognize those contributions. We have to do it,” he said. “What I want is for our young people to know we served, so they learn and understand what it’s about.”
Going into battle seemed like a rite of passage, said Jim Smith, 63, because the spirit of the warrior has been deep in him since he was a child.
“The warrior is the highest status there is, even above the chief. The chiefs had to be warriors before becoming a chief,” said Smith, who served in Vietnam. “My country called me so I went and served. … I would probably fight again. That’s just something we do as Native Americans.”
But when Smith got to Vietnam he found it hard to see the Vietnamese, with features similar to Native Americans, as the enemy.
"They looked so much like our local people here that it was difficult for me to do my job," Smith said. "These were people. They weren't just the ‘gooks’, the enemy. ... You could look at the kids and they could have been any of the kids here."
Racial conflicts in America also played out among the soldiers in Vietnam; they clashed with one another during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Smith said.
It hurt to return from Vietnam in 1967 only to be viewed as a second-class citizen because of his ethnic background, Redthunder said.
“Even though we fought for this country we were people who were downgraded for our race,” said Redthinder who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam. “Freedom should mean freedom for everybody.”
Native Americans still continue to fight for this country because the idea of protecting country and land is still strong, said Steven Clevenger, author of “America’s First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq.”
Clevenger, a member of the Osage tribe, conducted interviews for his book with Native Americans who were raised learning cultural traditions. “They are expected to defend their people, their culture and their country by participating in the military,” Clevenger said. “There just aren’t that many non-Natives in American life that look at he military in a positive way.”
Native Americans’ reverence and allegiance to the earth is closely tied to a duty to defend it. Redthunder said, because fighting for this country means fighting for themselves.
“This land is us.”