The American Indian in the Great War:
Real and Imagined


Diane Camurat


WWI and its Consequences:

American Indian Service in WWI



Although many were not American citizens, Native Americans served in the Great War. Many did not even wonder whether their status raised a problem: they enlisted voluntarily, without even waiting for the Selective Service Act of May 1917. They served in every category of the Army, motivated in many cases by the military and patriotic training they had received in government schools, and they proved as worthy on the front as any other soldier. American Indian civilians also contributed their effort to the war, by buying Liberty Bonds, working for the Red Cross, or participating in the general wartime work effort.


1. Indian Military Service in WWI

1.1. Numbers, Overall View

1.1.1. Total Indian Participation: State of the Research

The present state of secondary sources on the participation of Native Americans in WWI does not provide a definite answer to the question of how many Native Americans actually served in the military. A short survey of the different figures available will give an idea of this.

The first document I found was a March 1919 report from the Boston Hampton Committee. Even before all American soldiers had come back home, the Committee estimated that 5,000 Indians had served in the armed forces of the United States but also stated that 12,000 Indians had enlisted in the Canadian army, without making it clear whether this number included the Indian volunteers from the United States.1 Reverend Chief Red Fox Skiuhushu, in an article he wrote for the American Indian Tepee in the autumn of 1920, spoke of "9,000 young braves" in the Army.2 For William T. Hagan, "a number" of Indian men volunteered in WWI.3 Francis Paul Prucha reports Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells' estimated figures of 1918­8,000 Indian men in training or active duty, 6,000 of them having enlisted. But then, Cato Sells later spoke of 10,000 Indian servicemen.4 The first estimation given by Cato Sells in 1918 was the one used in a paragraph dealing with American Indian involvement in the war in the history of the Y.M.C.A. in the Great War.5 Alison R. Bernstein, writing about American Indians in WWII, estimates the number of Indian volunteers in the Great War at 10,000.6 The sources she quotes are Michael L. Tate and Jennings C. Wise. Michael Tate, in a very detailed and rich article on American Indian soldiers from 1890 to 1918, says that "more than ten thousand Indian men served in the United States and Canadian armies during the war."7 This number of 10,000 is also given by Tom Holm, in an article about American Indians in WWII, who quotes the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1920.8

The confusion not only comes from the numerous figures, but also from the country for which American Indians served­United States or Canada­and from the different terms used. Some authors consider the number of servicemen, others the number of men enlisted, still others the number of volunteers. Each term refers to a different category and needs further definition.

The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917.9 Before this date, men who wanted to enter military service in France had two choices. They could either enlist in the French Foreign Legion­but only 200 Americans, including South Americans did so in the first month of the war10­or enlist in the Canadian and thus British Army. After April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson initially believed that men from all over the United States would swarm into local draft boards to volunteer for the defence of democracy.11 Volunteerism was open to every man "between the ages of eighteen and forty years, both inclusive."12 Yet it soon became obvious that volunteerism would not fill the ranks of the army and men would thus have to be drafted. Following the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, all men­American Indians included­"between the ages of twenty-one and thirty years, both inclusive"13 had to register, meaning that they had to report to their local draft board and inscribe their name on a list: they were then registered. Each county of the United States had to provide a certain number of men. To fill this quota, each county drafted­or conscripted (a synonym)­the number of men required. These men were inducted into service, being referred to as draftees or conscripts.14

In the secondary sources I consulted, Jennings C. Wise was the first author, in 1931, to give precise figures: 17,313 Indians were registered, and of the 11,803 registered prior to September 11, 1918, 6,509 were inducted into service.15 Then Russel L. Barsh, in the only article existing which deals strictly with the participation of American Indians in the Great War, gives the same figures as Jennings C. Wise and, more interesting for us, he documents them: these figures come from the War Department.16 Indeed, Wise's and Barsh's figures correspond to the approximate number of 17,000 American Indian soldiers reported by John Weeks, the acting Secretary of War in 1921, in the letter he wrote to the French Minister of War to ask for an authorization to visit France for Joseph K. Dixon.17 From now on, given my lack of primary source and the imprecision of secondary sources, I will use Russel Barsh's figures.

1.1.2. How Many Volunteered for the Canadian Army?

According to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells in his 1918 Report, "many Indians from our northern reservations enrolled in Canadian military organizations before the declaration of war by the United States."18 In his 1917 report, Cato Sells also gave the example of two Native Americans from Carlisle who had enlisted in the Princess Patricia Regiment of Canada. One of them, Ernest Kick, died in the trenches in France; the other, Sylvester Long Lance, was wounded in "valorous action."19

The case of Sylvester Long Lance is particularly interesting.20 This former Carlisle student, born "in the midst of the stifling racial prejudice of the Old South" pretended he was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian and later in his life that he was a Blackfoot born in Montana. His whole life was one of lies and impostures, yet he actually had participated in the Great War. It is difficult to know why he chose to volunteer for the Canadian Army­probably to fight for a great world cause as it was praised in the newspaper of his alma mater, St. John's. On August 4, 1916, Long Lance enlisted in Montreal, lying about his date of birth and claiming a West Point military experience. He was first assigned to the 237th Battalion of the American Legion, then transferred to the 97th Battalion and arrived in England on September 25, 1916. After having hurt his knee in training, he was transferred in October to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Depot, near Brighton. It was from here that he sent a Christmas card to Carlisle:

I've just come out of the trenches
Where we made the Germans dance,
And I'm sending this Greeting to let you know
That he is still alive, Yours Truly, Lieut. Long-Lance;

Alive and fit as fit can be,
Though fighting's not all sport,
And manners "made in Germany"
Aren't quite what you and I were taught.21

Of course, Long Lance was not a Lieutenant but a Sergeant, and of course he knew of the French trenches only what he could have read in the newspapers. But then, who would have known this in Carlisle? His letter was quickly sent to newspapers and the New York Sun, on February 12, 1917, read: "Lieut. Long Lance of Carlisle Surprises Teacher with Note from Trenches."

Long Lance did eventually see actual combat in France, at the famous battle fought and won by the Canadian forces at Vimy Ridge, in April 1917. He was wounded a month later, and then again in June, which put an end to his war service. In July 1917, another article about him was published in the New York World, beginning the caption by these words: "Fenimore Cooper's Romances Have Nothing on the Real Life Story of This Full-Blooded Cherokee From Kit Carson's Country." Indeed, James Fenimore Cooper's imagination seemed to pale before Long Lance's. In any case, the letters he wrote to Carlisle were probably the information on which Cato Sells relied when mentioning him in his 1917 Report.22 These letters and the interview he gave to a journalist were also taken at first value by newspapers who used them to document articles about him. This is an indication of how reliable information on American Indian soldiers published in the United States might be.

1.1.3. Indians in the Army: Numbers and Proportions

6,509 American Indian men were inducted. This number does not include those who volunteered. Russel Barsh was able to give an approximate number of volunteers by studying data collected by the Indian Office from local Indian agencies. The local Indian Office employees served as registrars and collected information in the process.23 At least 50% of all Indians who served were volunteers. This means that around 13,000 Indian men served in the war, representing between 20 and 30% of all Indian men­whereas no more than 15% of all adult American men served in the war.24

By the time the American Army had reached its peak, on November 11, 1918, it numbered 3,703,273 persons.25 The 13,000 American Indians who served thus represented about 0.4% of the total military personnel.

The American Indian Magazine liked to publicize the large number of American Indian volunteers. In the January-March 1918 issued of the magazine, Gertrude Bonnin spoke about those 500 Passamaquoddies of Maine who had enlisted with their chief, Peter Neptune.26 Although the Passamaquoddies had before been numerous to side with the Americans during the War of Independence under Chief Jean Baptist Neptune and had also enlisted in the Civil War, they were not 500 but around 100 to enlist in the Great War, which is already a very high number as compared to their small population of about 2800 people.27

1.1.4. How Many Went to France?

Of all the American Indians who served in the United States Army during the Great War, it is hard to know how many actually went to France. The only way this information can be found is to study the records kept by some­and not all­reservations. Apparently, considering the lack of exhaustive sources, Russel Barsh estimates that there were between 2,000 and 4,000 who went to fight in France.28 This would mean that only 15 to 30% of all American Indians who served in the American Army during the Great War actually saw combat in France. The difference of experience between those who "went over the top" and thosed who did not would later be crucial in determining the attitudes of American Indian veterans back home.

American Indian soldiers in France represented about 0.2% of the 2,003,935 members of the American Expeditionary Forces on November 11, 1918.29 Comparatively, the 200,000 Black Americans who served in separate units represented about 10% of the American Expeditionary Forces30­but then of course their share in the American population was larger than that of Native Americans. Of the latter, all those who did not see service in France remained in camps in the United States, spent their war service in Mexico chasing Pancho Villa, stayed in Arizona to take care of striking American miners, went to Siberia, and one toured in Central America with a military band.31

The other authors I studied do not make the distinction between soldiers serving overseas and those remaining in the United States. Only Chief William Red Fox, in the autobiography he wrote in 1971, speaks about 8,047 American Indian soldiers who went to France but he probably equated the total number of American Indian servicemen given by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs with the number of the soldiers who went to France.32

1.1.5. Casualties

The proportion of American Indian soldiers who died in action was apparently higher than that of the American Expeditionary Forces as a whole, 5% and 1%, respectively. At the same time, war was not as deadly a killer as disease. Here, American Indian soldiers were as badly hit as the American Expeditionary Forces as a whole. Of the 112,000 American soldiers who died in the Great War, 62,000­or 55%­died from disease, and particularly from the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1918-1919.33

1.2. Registration, Draft, and Assignments

1.2.1. Registration

Under arrangements with the Provost Marshal General, it had been decided that Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells would be in charge of the registration of Indians. In the registration process and in his relation with the reservation superintendents, Cato Sells had the same position as the Governor of the State, and each superintendent had the position of an executive officer of the County. The instructions were that all persons residing on a reservation­Indians, whether wards or citizens, and every other person, whether citizen, alien, or alien enemy­had to register at local precincts. Each superintendent had been supplied with a number of registration cards representing approximately 15% of the total Indian population of their jurisdiction.34

1.2.2. Draft

By July 1917, once registration had been completed, the selective draft could begin. All registered male Indians who were citizens, not alien enemies, or who had declared their intention to become citizens, and who were between ages 21 and 30, both inclusive, were eligible for the draft. Their cards were to be sent by superintendents to local draft boards. The duplicate cards of non-citizen Indians were to be sent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs while the other copy was to be kept by the superintendent.35

Apart from the incidents already mentioned, there was very little resistance to the draft. Yet, some American Indians failed to report either for medical examination or to their military camps and were thus classified as deserters. Some of these men did not know they had to report, others wanted to claim deferment but did not know the procedure, or did not know that there was one to follow. All this was not voluntary resistance to the draft, only the result of lack of information, or misunderstanding: many American Indians could not speak or read English.36 Only 228 Indian men­not even 1% of all who registered­filed a claim for exemption.37

1.2.3. Assignments

American Indians served in all branches of the Army. Some were in the cavalry, some in the military police, some were in the medical corps, some in military intelligence, some in the engineers. American Indian soldiers also acquired a ready-made reputation handed down from the time of the Indian Wars and many of them were given scouting duties. Many were very much attracted by the aviation corps, just as White soldiers were.38 An aura of heroism and bravery was attached to these pioneers in aerial combat­an adventure which had been inaugurated in 1915 by French pilot Roland Garros who had had the idea of mounting a machine-gun on his airplane and with which he shot down two German airplanes.39 It does not seem, however, that any Indians served in the Lafayette Escadrille, founded in April 1916 and composed of 38 Americans who wanted to fight in France before the United States had entered the war. F.W. Richester, whose Oklahoma Indian identity was not even certain, was said to have been part of the Lafayette Escadrille but this does not appear to be true. As he is not on the list of member of the Escadrille No. 124 given by French Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Thenault or of other units attached to the French Army, he might have enlisted before April 1917 in a British air squadron and thus be counted among those of the Lafayette Flying Corps­an honorary grouping of all American aviators attached to units of the Allied Forces before the United States entered the war.40

Women also entered military service. Tsianina Redfeather, a Creek Indian, went to sing songs to American soldiers at the front. Anne Ross, a great-great-granddaughter of Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, and Iva J. Rider, another Cherokee woman also known as "Princess Atalie" went to France with the Young Women's Christian Association. Anne Ross worked in the canteen service, and Iva Rider was a member of the entertainment committee.41 Some Indian women also enlisted as nurses but, since the introduction of a four-year vocational course in nursing had only been recent in Indian schools, there were not yet many American Indian nurses. Commissioner Cato Sells, in February 1918, knew about six American Indian women who had been assigned to hospital work in the United States and overseas.42

1.3. Origins

1.3.1. Indian School Students

Nearly all Indian school students enlisted­90% volunteered, as opposed to 20-40% of the reservation men.43 In all major off-reservation boarding schools, students enlisted en masse. According to Cato Sells, 75% of American Indians who served in the Great War had received an education in school.44 While this figure was probably exaggerated in order to emphasize how beneficial the schools were, it does indicate that many American Indian soldiers were educated.

In 1917 and 1918, The American Indian Y.M.C.A. Bulletin regularly published letters from Indian soldiers and lists of those who were students in Indian schools. The January 1918 issue gives lists of students from the Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania, the Hampton Institute in Virginia, the Salem Indian School in Oregon, and Santee Normal and Training School in Nebraska. It also contains two letters from two former Chilocco (Oklahoma) students, one "somewhere in France," the other at Camp Jackson, Colorado.45 An article in the June 1919 issue draws much of its information from the Haskell Indian Leader, the publication of the Haskell boarding school. It reports on the rejoicing at Haskell upon the return of enlisted students.46 The concern of this bulletin was of course restricted to those Indian soldiers who were Y.M.C.A. members. In its July 1918 issue, The Indian Sentinel, published by the Bureau of Catholic Missions, gave the names of the 65 Carlisle Catholic students and former students who had enlisted.47

1.3.2. Geographic Origin of American Indian Soldiers

The tribes most represented among WWI soldiers were those of Oklahoma, where between 30 and 60% of all men served­39% for the Osage and 54% for the Quapaws. A large proportion of Sioux men enlisted, too­between 10 and 15%. Navajo and Pueblo Indians, on the other hand, were very few in number­not more than 1% of all men of the tribes.48

Russel Barsh distinguishes three main areas that provided the biggest proportion of American Indian soldiers. A first group of soldiers­5,000 to 6,000­came from Oklahoma and, as we saw earlier, they were American citizens. American Indians representing an important share of the Oklahoma population, they were sometimes in majority in military units, thus being de facto segregated. Another contingent of 1,500 to 2,000 Indians came from the Great Lakes area. Most of these were reservation Chippewas who were scattered through the Army. The third group was composed of some 1,000 Sioux Indians. Most of the latter did not speak English and were not citizens.49

1.4. Motivations

One of the biggest contradictions of the participation of American Indians in WWI is the fact that many of them volunteered out of patriotism for a country which their forefathers had fought against only three decades earlier. Of course the young American Indians who were willing to fight in the Great War were born around the turn of the century and thus knew of the Indian Wars only what they had been told. Moreover, as we saw earlier, patriotic training had been part of the curriculum in government Indian schools since they existed­with the learning of patriotic songs, the observation of national holidays like Washington's birthday, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, the respect of the "stars and stripes," etc.50

Although I found only one evidence of it, it seems likely that a number of American Indian soldiers enlisted to leave the difficult economic and moral conditions prevailing on the reservations in 1917, as Oneida Indians had done when they enlisted in the Civil War in 1863. This is the reason Thomas E. Mails gave for the enlistment of Apache soldiers in 1917.51

1.4.1. Military Training at Indian Schools

Robert S. Youngdeer, a career military man and former principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, believed that much of the motivation young American Indians had to go fight for the United States came from the semi-military training they had received in schools like Carlisle, Haskell, Hampton, and other boarding schools.52 Semi-military training seems an understatement in regard to what Cato Sells wrote in 1918:

Our Indian military enrollments being largely from the student class have had military drills and movements, besides systematic athletics, in connection with their school work and from the resulting discipline of such exercises they are in a measure prepared for the more rigid tests of the training camp, and, as a rule, are in fine physique and good health."53

It is enough to look at pictures of students at Carlisle to see that their uniform was directly inspired from the military, for boys as well as for girls. The military training provided in off-reservation Indian schools apparently increased after April 1917. The 1917 report of the Board of Indian Commissioners presented Commissioner Edward E. Ayer's idea that American Indian boys be instructed in target practice "according to the methods of the Regular Army." The report added that:

... non reservation schools be provided with rifle ranges equipped with the regulation targets, that rifles and ammunition be secured from the War Department, and the boy students of such schools be trained in the use of the Army rifle.54

1.4.2. Patriotism

In 1917, at his own accord, Chief Red Fox went to Washington to see Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. He wanted to offer the services of the Indians in the Great War:

From all over the West we now stand ready­50,000 Indians between the ages of seventeen and fifty-five. We beg of you, to give us the right to fight. We guarantee to you, sir, our hearts could be for no better cause than to fight for the land we love, and for the freedom we share.55

Patriotism was a motivation for acculturated American Indians mainly­those who felt American enough to go fight for the country. Educated American Indians were patriotic, but also all those who, through their activities, were in close contact with Whites. I do not have enough information on the background of each American Indian soldier who spoke about his motivations to determine his degree of acculturation. Yet, from the words they use in their testimonies, it is possible to draw some conclusions. For example, Joseph Cloud, from Sisseton, told the New York Evening Sun: "My nation gave liberally to the army. The men wanted to go; the women ordered us to go. No good Indian would run away from a fight. We knew that the life of America depended on its men, and we are Americans."56 From what he says, while Joseph Cloud seems to be more driven by the tradition of his people­bravery and the will of women­he ends by expressing a community of interest with all Americans: patriotism.

Education in off-reservation boarding schools had given American Indians the strong feeling that there was a world beyond the reservation, that they were first and foremost Americans. The training they underwent in schools like Carlisle was intended to erase their "tribal ties" and to make good Americans out of them. The patriotism they showed by enlisting in 1917 proved that some of this education had accomplished its purpose. Retired Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt understood this when he wrote to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker on December 17, 1918:

If through perilous army service they have proven they are after all not so unequal to us in ability and patriotism and are ready to die for the country, it demonstrated the highest attributes of citizenship. If shoulder to shoulder and comrades in war, why not shoulder to shoulder and comrades in peace?"57

For people like Richard H. Pratt, Cato Sells, or members of the Society of American Indians, the war appeared as the ultimate means to prove that, if educated, Indians could become good citizens and that "the cause of the Indian [would] be advanced a hundred fold by [their] sacrifice for the greater world freedom."58

1.4.3. "Common Cause with the Allies"

It would seem that, even for educated American Indians, patriotism was not limited to the United States. Their engagement was more based on the existence of a community of interests between them and Euro-Americans. If they felt a strong attachment to the United States, they did not forget their origins. Their allegiance was on two-levels: to their country and to their tribe. In an article published in the American Indian Y.M.C.A. Bulletin in the fall of 1917, Arthur C. Parker illustrated this attempt to synthesize his being both American and Seneca. Arthur Parker, whose father was Iroquois and whose mother was White, was first raised on the reservation and then went to high school and studied for the ministry. Although he did not go to university, he became a respected anthropologist. He played a major role in the creation of the Society of American Indians in 1911, and in 1917, was its president.59 Here is an excerpt of the article cited above:

"The American Indian has common cause with the Allies (...) The Indian fights because he loves freedom and because humanity needs the defence of the freedom loving man. The Indian fights because his country, his liberties, his ideals and his manhood are assailed by the brutal hypocracy [sic] of Prussianism. Challenged, the Indian has responded and shown himself a citizen of the world, an exponent of an ethical civilization wherein human liberty is assured."60

Arthur Parker found a way to combine his double allegiance by using universal arguments. His patriotism went beyond borders. His mother country was "Freedom," his fight was that of "manhood" against the "hypocrisy of Prussianism." There were no longer Indians and Americans, only members of the same humanity.

Some White authors even went further than Arthur Parker. They came to see the American Indian as the "oldest American." The involvement of American Indians in the Great War thus had a side effect on some people who came to get a glimpse of the reality of the fight led by native people against the United States government: "Today the intelligent Indians see Germany trying to do to all the world what the white man did to the Indian."61

1.4.4. Proof of American Loyalty

I already mentioned the draft incidents on the Nevada's Goshute Reservation and in Oklahoma that were interpreted in newspapers as the result of German propaganda. Yet, in these cases I do not know if these distortions gave rise to any enlistment aimed at disproving the rumor.

The case of Sergeant Otis W. Leader, a Choctaw, who was working in the cattle business in Oklahoma when the war began, was proof that such had happened elsewhere. Leader enlisted in the Army only after a rumor had spread that he was a German spy and he did so to prove his loyalty to America. This brave soldier would later be selected by the French government to serve as a model for the typical American soldier in a painting to be executed by French artist Dewarreux.62

Otis Leader's example shows that education was not the only way through which American Indians acquired a degree of patriotism. I do not have enough information on Otis W. Leader to draw definitive conclusions about his motivations. Yet his job in the cattle business had certainly put him into contact with Whites, some of whom had probably questioned his integrity by assimilating him to a German spy. In a context of war hysteria, enlistment was perhaps the only solution he found to counter the rumor and demonstrate his loyalty.

1.5. The Front

Even if newspapers widely romanticized stories of Indian heroism in their columns as we will later see, Indian soldiers did actually prove heroic. But who was not a hero in this long and terrible war? Indians fought just like other soldiers, often going "over the top" just to see the light and avoid the horrible feeling of awaiting death in the trenches. Here are some Native American accounts of their experience in France, stories that resemble many others by many other soldiers, be they White, Black, Native American, French, English, German, etc.

1.5.1. Heroes, Like All the Others

Captain J.H. Howell, commanding officer of Company H of the Nineteenth Infantry Regiment related how Ute Crow, a Cherokee of the Eastern Band, saved his life when he was attacked by a German soldier. Ute Crow seized the point of the bayonet with his bare hands and pulled the weapon out of the enemy's hands. He was also reported to have captured an enemy machine-gun nest single-handed.63 In November 1918, Walter G. Sevalia, an Ojibwa from Wisconsin and member of the 7th Engineers, swam across the Meuse with a heavy cable under intense fire. He again crossed the East Canal with a message and was then wounded.64

In his 1919 report, Cato Sells gave numerous examples of heroic Indian soldiers. Many received the croix de guerre for their distinguished services, for their "exceptional skill, courage, and coolness under fire." Some attacked machine-gun nests, others guided patrols in No-Man's Land, still others killed and captured Germans or ventured across enemy lines to carry messages.65 One of them­Private Joseph Oklahombi, a Choctaw­was awarded the croix de guerre by Marshal Pétain himself. His citation reads:

Under a violent barrage, dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man's land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades.66

So numerous were the examples of Indian heroism that, at one point, the Army began to wonder if Indians had particular gifts as soldiers. It became so much of a concern that American Indian soldiers were submitted to a series of psychological tests which I will analyse later.67 Newspaper articles also had much to say on the "natural" abilities of these born-warriors. It would be very interesting to elaborate on this theme and study the impact of traditional cultures on combat as it was practiced by Indian soldiers during the Great War. But such a study would require an analysis of the warrior traditions of each tribe involved in WWI. Generalizations on the warrior traditions of the conglomerate of all American Indians present no interest and would just be another contribution to the ever-present stereotype of the noble Indian warrior.

At the same time, American Indian soldiers were not the invincible heroes the media would have their readers believe. They could also die from injuries or be scared of combat. The testimony of Herbert Omaha Boy, a Sioux veteran from Rosebud, who fought at Château Thierry, shows that American Indian soldiers were human beings­not some variety of supernatural war machines:

I shall remember that night Black as Ink as I was crept for a shelter, I found a man lying down with his head down, so lay down beside him for the night and next morning as drawn up, I was going awake my friend up, But it was dead soldier I was lay with him all night. Sometimes we had to fall flat on our faces in the mud as bursting shells tores off the branches of trees and the sound of the explosions echoed and re-echoed through the thickets.68

1.5.2. The Choctaw Code Talkers

In a 1918 report, Colonel A.W. Bloor commanding the 142d Infantry, 36th Division, reported on the interesting experiment carried out in his regiment in France. After having occupied trenches formerly inhabited by German soldiers in the area of Saint-Etienne and the Aisne, Colonel Bloor realized that the Germans had tapped the radio lines they were using. He was not long in remembering that his regiment had a company of American Indians "who spoke twenty-six different languages or dialects, only four or five of which were ever written." Two Choctaw soldiers who could speak several of these languages were chosen and placed in each P.C. The experience immediately proved successful when a planned assault on the Germans was kept secret until H hour. Other Indians were therefore assigned to transmitting messages and they agreed on a code for translating military terms that did not exist in their languages­artillery was called a "Big Gun," a machine gun became a "Little gun shoot fast," the battalions were designated by one, two, or three grains of corn.69

The use of their native languages by American Indian soldiers was the most obvious contribution of Native Americans to military strategy. It could be that they also brought specific techniques of warfare to the American Army but for this, we can only rely on what Commissioner Cato Sells said in his 1918 annual report:

It is reasonably due the Indian to mention the contributions of his more primitive endowments to the methods and strategy of modern warfare, as disclosed in individual adroitness of attack, in trench tactics, in concealed approach and creeping offensive and in many successful features of reconnaissance and maneuver, which are conceded to be largely borrowed from the aboriginal American who was ever a natural trailer, who slipped noiselessly through tanglewood and made himself a part of the trees, who was a born sharpshooter, a scout by intuition and an instinctive artist in the intricacies of camouflage."70

1.5.3. Life on the Front: the Work of the Y.M.C.A.

The work of the Young Men's Christian Association concerning American Indian soldiers during the Great War is very interesting because it was primarily concerned with the well-being of the soldier. Life on the Front was not only dangerous, it could also be monotonous and boredom was one of the greatest perils the army confronted. So the Y.M.C.A. was given by the American government the unusual task­for the Y.M.C.A.­of organizing canteens (mobile cafeterias) and establishing leave areas, while pursuing its usual task of entertaining the soldiers. The job of the 5,861 Y.M.C.A. workers attached to the American Expeditionary Forces was one of morale and social welfare whereas the 5,500 Red Cross members took care of the complementary medical aspects of relief work.71

The context in which the Y.M.C.A. worked in France was thus very different from that which it was accustomed to in the United States. In looking out for the well-being of American Indians in the Army, Y.M.C.A. volunteers were not working for their assimilation. They organized group meetings for Indians to "sing their own songs and hear and speak their own languages." Y.M.C.A. volunteers understood that American Indian soldiers would feel better­and thus would fight better­if their cultures were acknowledged. An "Indian Night" was also occasionally organized and, drawing spectators who were not American Indians, contributed towards establishing "closer relations with other soldiers."72


2. American Indian Civil Service During WWI

"There are no armies in this struggle, there are entire nations armed. Thus, the men who remain to till the soil and man the factories are no less part of the army that is in France than the men beneath the battle flags."

President Woodrow Wilson.73

The Great War was the first worldwide conflict and it occurred between countries which had become part of an international economic system. To support the soldiers fighting on the front in the Somme, in Greece, or in Russia, the work and financial contributions of all countries directly or indirectly involved in the war were of crucial importance. The United States had begun financing the war effort long before officially entering the war in April 1917,74 and it provided precious dollars to France when, from June to August 1917, it purchased $160 million-worth of arms from France. Raw materials­although in insufficient quantity for the French government­were also shipped to France.75 The involvement of the United States in the Great War thus required an effort from every American individual, American Indians included.

2.1. Liberty Bonds

"Hardly less important than the man with a gun is the man with a bond."

Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells, 1918.76

By October 1917, American Indians had already subscribed $4,607,850 to the first issue of Liberty Bonds.77 More than 80% of this sum was contributed by only 67 American Indians, the individual amounts ranging from $50 to $640,000. For Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells, the motivation was as much a financial one­the investment­as a patriotic one.78 He cites the widow and sons of Geronimo among the subscribers, as well as the son of Chief Victorio.79 Cato Sells considers this as an attestation of "the growth of Indian thought and sentiment along lines pertaining to the general welfare."80

American Indians also widely subscribed to the second and third issues of Liberty Bonds­respectively $4,392,750 and $4,362,300. Added to these figures are the amounts contributed by American Indians living off-reservation, which would make a total contribution for the three issues of at least $15,000,000­approximately $50 per capita. Once again, Cato Sells insists on the patriotic aspect of this major contribution. Yet, it would be interesting to further analyse the conditions in which these subscriptions were made since, apparently, the money invested came from trust funds "drawing a rate of interest less or not exceeding, the rate of the bond." It seems doubtful that American Indians subscribed to Liberty Bonds just out of financial calculation but it could have been an incentive for some of them.81

2.2. Working for the Government and the Red Cross

2.2.1. Recruiting Agents

Military officials were apparently aware of the impact that costumed Indians would have if employed as recruiting agents. Who could be more convincing than the age-old enemy turned into a loyal American? A French newspaper, the Miroir, was apparently very surprised by this process since it reported on it twice. First on June 17, 1917, a photograph of Chief Eagle Horse trying to convince a crowd of young Americans to enlist, was published. Interestingly enough, Chief Eagle Horse, who is said to be a "native from Alaska," wears Plains Indian regalia, from top to bottom.82 In another article of August 26, 1917, Comanche Chief Ouana Washosha and his wife appear in a picture and are presented as recruiting agents. They wear their traditional costume for this purpose.83

2.2.2. Liberty Bond and War Stamp Salespersons

The same reasoning was made by officials who were in charge of campaigning for Liberty Bond sales. Not only did they use the example of American Indians who had invested exemplary sums of money in Liberty Bonds, but they also used costumed Indians to promote their sales. It did not matter if the costume they wore was not the authentic one of their tribe, nor did it matter if they were educated American Indians who had otherwise never worn a traditional costume in their life. What mattered was efficiency. Dance-costumed Indians could attract attention far better than salesmen dressed in ordinary grey suits. In this era of roaring capitalism, the architects of mass advertising had understood that striking images were better sellers than reasoning. It was thus that a former Carlisle graduate, renamed for the occasion "Chief Don White Eagle," performed a war dance every day on the steps of the New York Public Library in order to sell war stamps.84 Charles Eastman also participated in the Liberty Bond sales campaign by touring through many reservations, but as he was going to speak to real Indians, he was not costumed.85

2.2.3. Supporting the Red Cross

Indian schools throughout the United States were very active in giving their support to the Red Cross. According to Cato Sells, some 30,000 pupils­10,000 in 25 non-reservation schools, 12,000 in 10 tribal and 73 reservation boarding schools, and 12,000 in 210 day schools and 77 mission and other schools­participated in the work of the Red Cross. Each of the 30 school publications existing devoted articles to this humanitarian movement. For example, in December 1917, one of the schools had placed a Christmas Red Cross banner in every American Indian home on the reservation. In the same school, older girls and woman employees spent their Saturday afternoons sewing for the Red Cross while older boys and male employees gathered moss to make surgical pads, bed pads, and ambulance pillows.86

2.3. Wartime Work Efforts

During the war years, the need for foodstuffs gave rise to a national food campaign that was strongly supported by the Indian Office. The BIA sought to stimulate the Indians' interest in producing more as well as in increasing the amount of American Indian land cultivated­whether by Indians themselves of by White lessees. If American Indian soldiers were contributing their lives to the war effort, American Indian civilians would contribute their work and their land­sometimes irremediably so where the land was concerned.87 Indeed, the war effort was another occasion for American Indian policy makers to reaffirm the all-importance of cultivation in the acculturation process. At least Cato Sells thought so:

There yet remain thousands of acres of uncultivated agricultural land on the different reservations with many able-bodied Indians not making their best effort toward self-support, many of whom should no doubt be farming (...) Every uncultivated acre of tillable land is an opportunity and a challenge which we must not neglect".88

Many American Indians did actively participate in this national effort, but did not always do so willingly. As in Canada, where reservation land had been leased to White farmers without American Indian consent, the United States asked "greater efficiency" from American Indian farmers without giving them the means to purchase the equipment necessary to do so.89

Some American Indians also worked in shipyards to sustain the war effort, or in factories, such as the Indian students who began working at the Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit in 1915.90 They probably assembled the Ford Model-T's used as ambulances in France before 1917 by the young volunteers of the American Ambulance Field Service. (As we will later see, the insignia of the first section of the A.A.F.S. was a Plains Indian head profile...91



The 13,000 American Indian soldiers who served as soldiers in the Great War, the $15 million dollars contributed in Liberty Bonds by American Indians at home, the participation of American Indians in the United States war work effort are hardly incidental considering the relatively small proportion of the Indian population within the general American population and the several decades of forced assimilation and loss of lands they had undergone before the war. Yet, up until today, this contribution has received little of the attention it deserves.

In the public mention that was made during the Great War of the military service of American Indian, it was the sensational that was stressed. Regardless who American Indian soldiers really were, they were depicted in newspaper articles or on visual symbols used by the army as the heirs of the Indian warrior, primitive yet brave. It is this aspect of the "presence" of American Indians in the war that I will consider in the next chapter, "American Indians in Symbol".

Part II, WWI and its Consequences: Chapter III: American Indian Symbols in WWI

Table of Contents


1 . A Brief Sketch of the Record of the American Negro and Indian in the Great War. Report of the Committee on Information of the Boston Hampton Committee, March 1919, p.4.

2 . Quoted by Hazel W. Hertzberg. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse, New York, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972, p.220.

3 . William T. Hagan. American Indians. Revised edition. Chicago &London: the University of Chicago Press, 1979 (1961), p.148.

4 . Francis Paul Prucha. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Abridged edition. Lincoln &London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991 (1984), pp.266-67.

5 . William Howard Taft, ed. Service with Fighting Men: An Account of the Work of the American Young Men's Christian Associations in the World War. New York: Association Press, 1922, p.412.

6 . Alison R. Bernstein. American Indians and World War II. Norman &London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, p.22.

7 . Michael L. Tate. "From Scout to Doughboy: The National Debate Over Integrating American Indians into the Military, 1891-1918." Western Historical Quarterly. 17, n°4, (October 1986), p.430.

8 . Tom Holm. "Fighting a White Man's War: The Extent and Legacy of American Indian Participation in World War II." In The Plains Indians of the Twentieth Century. Ed. Peter Iverson. Norman &London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, p.151.

9 . Richard B. Morris, ed. Encyclopedia of American History. Revised and enlarged edition. New York: Harper &Brothers Publishers, 1961 (1953), p.309.

10 . Alan Albright. "Le volontariat américain en France." ("American Volunteerism in France"). In 1853-1947: Les Américains et la Légion d'Honneur. (1853-1947: The Americans of the Legion of Honor). Bilingual (French/English) edition. Ed. Véronique Wiesinger, Musée national de la Coopération franco-américaine, Château de Blérancourt. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993, p.125 (English version).

11 . John R. Finger. Cherokee Americans: The Eastern Band of Cherokees in the Twentieth Century. Lincoln &London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991, p.35.

12 . The Selective Draft Law and the President's Registration Proclamation. New York: National Bank of Commerce in New York, May 1917, Section 2, p.19.

13 . Ibid., p.13.

14 . John R. Finger, op. cit., pp.35-36.

15 . Jennings C. Wise. The Red Man in the New World Drama. A Politico-Legal Study with a Pageantry of American Indian History. Edited and revised by Vine Deloria, Jr. from the 1931 edition. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974, p.320.

16 . Russel L. Barsh. "American Indians in the Great War." Ethnohistory. 38:3 (Summer 1991), p.277.

17 . Secrétaire d'Etat à la Guerre, John Weeks, au ministre de la Guerre, Paris, March 23, 1921. Archives diplomatiques du ministère des Affaires étrangères. Série Amérique 1918-1929. Etats-Unis. 276. B-19-2, Autorisations Américains France. Juin 1918-Décembre 1921.

18 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. September 30, 1918. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.875.

19 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. October 15, 1917. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.870.

20 . All information on Long Lance has been taken from chapter 5 of Donald B. Smith. Long Lance: The True Story of an Impostor. Toronto, Canada: MacMillan of Canada, 1982, pp.36-44. Thanks to John J. Slonaker, Chief of the Historical Reference Branch at the U.S. Army Military History Institute (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) for having sent a copy of this chapter to me.

21 . Donald B. Smith, op. cit., p.41.

22 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. October 15, 1917. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.870.

23 . Ibid.

24 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.277.

25 . Renseignements statistiques concernant l'Armée américaine. Etat-Major de l'Armée de Terre (E.M.A.), Bureau Spécial franco-américain, Première Section, 1917-1919, French Military Archives, Vincennes.

26 . Michael L. Tate, op. cit., pp.427-28.

27 . Thank you to Joseph A. Nicholas, Curator of the Waponahki Museum and Resource Center at Perry, Maine, who sent me this information on the Passamaquoddies. Joseph A. Nicholas to Diane Camurat, May 7, 1994.

28 . Interview with Russel L. Lawrence Barsh. January 16, 1994.

29 . Renseignements statistiques concernant l'Armée américaine, op. cit.

30 . Jay Murray Winter. La Première Guerre mondiale: l'éclatement d'un monde. Paris, Bruxelles, Montréal, Zurich: Sélection du Reader's Digest, 1990, p.156.

31 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.278.

32 . Chief William Red Fox. The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1971, p.31.

33 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.278. Mary Beth Norton, et al. A People &A Nation: A History of the United States. Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990, p.678.

34 . Cato Sells to superintendents (Circular 1305), May 15, 1917; Cato Sells to superintendents (Circular 1305 A), May 19, 1917; Cato Sells to superintendents (Circular 1305 B), May 22, 1917. Y.M.C.A. Historical Archives.

35 . Cato Sells to superintendents (Circular 1305 D), July 5, 1917. Y.M.C.A. Historical Archives.

36 . Cato Sells to superintendents (Circular 1377), November 22, 1917. Y.M.C.A. Historical Archives.

37 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.281.

38 . Ibid., pp.279-80.

39 . Joanne Burke. "The Lafayette Escadrille: Americans Flying for France: 1916-1918." A proposed film (Typescript), 1993.

40 . Ibid. Michael L. Tate, op. cit., p.432. Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.298, note 10. Lieutenant-colonel Georges Thenault. L'Escadrille Lafayette, Avril 1916-Janvier 1918. Paris: Hachette, 1939, Appendix I and II.

41 . Michael L. Tate, op. cit., pp.432-33.

42 . Cato Sells to Mrs. Marie E. Ives Humphrey, President of the American Indian League, February 19, 1918, p.2, Y.M.C.A. Historical Archives.

43 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.278.

44 . Cato Sells to Joseph McGaheran, Jr. February 24, 1919. In The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Vol.II. Francis Paul Prucha. Lincoln &London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp.835-36.

45 . American Indian Y.M.C.A. Bulletin. 7:4, January 1918.

46 . American Indian Y.M.C.A. Bulletin. 8:10, June 1919.

47 . The Indian Sentinel. Quarterly. July 1918. 1:10. Washington: Bureau of Catholic Missions, p.28.

48 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.278.

49 . Interview with Russel Lawrence Barsh. January 16, 1994.

50 . Thomas Jefferson Morgan. Excerpt from "Instructions to Indian Agents in Regard to Inculcation of Patriotism in Indian Schools," quoted in Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian," 1880-1900. Ed. Francis Paul Prucha. Lincoln &London: University of Nebraska Press, 1973, p.258.

51 . Thomas E. Mails. The People Called Apache. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1974, p.300.

51 . John R. Finger, Cherokee Americans: The Eastern Band of Cherokees in the Twentieth Century. Lincoln &London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991, p.43.

53 . Cato Sells to Mrs. Marie E. Ives Humphrey, President of the American Indian League, February 19, 1918, pp.4-5. Y.M.C.A. Historical Archives.

54 . Department of the Interior. Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1917, pp.14-15.

55 . Chief William Red Fox, op. cit., p.31.

56 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.279.

57 . R.H. Pratt to Newton D. Baker, December 17, 1918. John William Larner, Jr., ed. The Papers of Carlos Montezuma, M.D. including the Papers of Maria Keller Montezuma Moore and the Papers of Joseph W. Latimer. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., n.d. (Microfilm) Roll 4: Correspondence 29 October 1914 through 1 September 1920. C.R.H.E.U.

58 . Gertrude Bonnin, secretary of the SAI to SAI members, September 27, 1917, ibid.

59 . Hazel W. Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1971, pp.48-57.

60 . Arthur C. Parker. "Why the Red Man Fights for Democracy." American Indian Y.M.C.A. Bulletin. Vol.7, N° 1 &2, October-November 1917, p.1.

61 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.288.

62 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. September 30, 1919. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.898. American Indian Y.M.C.A. Bulletin. 9:5, January 1920, p.3.

63 . John R. Finger, op. cit., p.42.

64 . Michael L. Tate, op. cit., p.431.

65 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. September 30, 1919. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.897.

66 . Ibid., p.898.

67 . This series of tests will be dealt with in Chap. IV, paragraph 1.1.1. Jennings C. Wise, op. cit., pp.325-32.

68 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.283.

69 . Report of Colonel A.W. Bloor quoted extensively by Jennings C. Wise, op. cit., pp.327-28.

70 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. September 30, 1918. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.879.

71 . The respective roles of the Y.M.C.A. and Red Cross during the Great War were defined in the General Orders n°26 of August 26, 1917. William Howard Taft, ed., op. cit., pp.130-31. American Battle Monuments Commission. American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: A History, Guide, and Reference Book. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1938, p.507.

72 . William Howard Taft, ed., op. cit., pp.412-13.

73 . The Selective Draft Law and the President's Registration Proclamation. New York: National Bank of Commerce in New York, May 1917, p.8.

74 . Nouailhat, Yves-Henri. L'Amérique, puissance mondiale, 1897-1929. Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1979, pp.91-119, 241-96.

75 . André Kaspi. "1917: Les Américains dans la 'Grande Guerre.'" Informations et documents. 346, October 1974, pp.13-15.

76 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. September 30, 1918. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.876.

77 . Cato Sells to Mrs. Marie E. Ives Humphrey, President of the American Indian League, February 19, 1918, p.1. Y.M.C.A. Historical Archives.

78 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. October 15, 1917. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, pp.871-72.

79 . Apache chief Victorio was the bane of southwestern settlers in the late 1870s. See Robert M. Utley. "Indian-United States Military Situation, 1848-1891." In "History of Indian-White Relations." Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. Vol. 4. of Handbook of North American Indians. Ed. William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988, p. 179-80.

80 . Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells. October 15, 1917. In The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. Vol. II. Ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn. New York: Random House, 1973, p.872.

81 . Ibid., pp.876-77.

82 . Le Miroir. June 17, 1917. 7:186.

83 . Le Miroir. August 26, 1917. 7:196.

84 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.285.

85 . Michael L. Tate, op. cit., p.433.

86 . Cato Sells to Mrs. Marie E. Ives Humphrey, President of the American Indian League, February 19, 1918, p.3. Y.M.C.A. Historical Archives.

87 . Francis Paul Prucha. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Vol.II. Lincoln &London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984, p.884.

88 . Ibid.

89 . Michael L. Tate, op. cit., p.434.

90 . Russel L. Barsh, op. cit., p.284.

91 . History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France," 1914-1917, Told by its Members. Vol. I (3 volumes). Boston &New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, p.80, illustration facing p.112.

Diane Camurat