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A Warrior Legacy: Native Americans in the U.S. Military

Today’s Memorial Day post is dedicated to Veterans of the United States Military, and in particular, Native American Veterans.  Your profound sacrifices are a continual reminder of how freedom does not come for free, and why it is necessary to courageously face truth in order to experience authentic freedom.

(The following information was adapted from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.)

Navajo Code Talkers salute the American flag at the Democratic National Convention, 2007. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)


Native Americans represent the highest per capita for military enlistment of any ethnic group in the United States?

Young Natives often join the military as a way to see the world, support their families, pay for education, and gain experiences that are not available in their own communities.  But the legacy of Native American Veteran warriors runs much deeper, woven within the fabric of American society.

When World War I erupted, young Native men enlisted in numbers that many people might think surprising, considering Native Americans had not yet been granted U.S. citizenship.  The number of Native Americans serving in the military remained high during World War II, even when the social climate was such that Native Americans were not allowed to patronize businesses in many reservation border towns in the Southwest and Plains states.  This racism and discrimination arose from very deep roots – centuries of U.S. government policies and practices determined to find a solution to what was referred to as: the Indian problem.

Students of Carlisle Indian Boarding School, Pennsylvania (ca. 1900)

For more than three hundred years, Native Americans were forced to adapt to the Angl0-European culture of their conquerers.  One common method was a system of religious boarding schools.  These schools were led by various ethnocentric Christian denominations, brutally enforcing the transformation of “savages” and abolishing the “Indian-ness” of Native children.

Those who resisted such force were alienated from society, forced to dwell in abject poverty on barren reservation land no one else wanted, or were otherwise altogether exterminated.

With an average mortality rate of 50% due to brutal treatment and the spread of disease, hundreds of thousands of children never made it out of the Indian boarding school system alive.  Those lucky to survive faced additional challenges upon returning to their reservation communities.  Poverty soared, and employment rates on or near reservations remained extremely low to nonexistent.  As a result, serving in the military became a rite of passage for many young Native men.

Today, enlistment rates for both male and female Native Americans remain the highest in the United States.  And among the most common influences for military service is a cultural tradition for warriors to protect the tribal community, along with embracing important values of service, sacrifice, and courage as part of an individual’s journey to become:


A protector…

And an an agent for change.

# # #


The American Missionary, Vol. 37, No. 4 (April, 1883), pp. 105-107

U.S. Department of Defense, Information Delivery System, “Active Duty Age Change Report,” September 1987 – July 2005.U.S. Department of Defense, Information Delivery System, “Active Duty Report by Gender and Race-Ethnic Group-3035 (EO)” July 2005.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Holiday, Lindsay F., Bell, Gabriel, Klein, Robert E., Wells, Michael R., “American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans: Lasting Contributions,” September 2006.

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