Native Americans have served in our nation’s military since colonial times. In recent decades, they have served at a higher rate in proportion to their population than any other ethnic group. Why? For many military service is an extension of their warrior traditions. Others serve to reaffirm treaty alliances with the United States. Still others serve for sheer love of home and country.

Throughout Native America, servicemen and women are some of the most honored members of their communities. Yet they remain unrecognized by any landmark in our nation’s capital. That will soon change.

Eagle-feather war bonnets adorn U.S. military uniform jackets at a Ton-Kon-Gah (Black Leggings Society) ceremonial, held annually to honor Kiowa tribal veterans. Near Anadarko, Oklahoma, 2006.

National Museum of the American Indian

George Washington peace medal, 1792

George Washington peace medal, 1792

The United States often gave peace medals to tribal leaders to commemorate peaceful and friendly relations. This large silver medal depicts George Washington offering a pipe to a chief. In the background, a white man plows his fields with yoked oxen. On the reverse is an image of an eagle and the motto E pluribus unum.

Made by Joseph Richardson Jr. (1752–1831). Silver; 14.8 x 9.9 cm. National Museum of the American Indian 22/8915

The United States Congress has charged the National Museum of the American Indian with creating a memorial on its grounds to give all Americans the opportunity “to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans.” Their legacy deserves our recognition.

Horace Poolaw kneels in front of a P-40 Warhawk. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944.

Poolaw (Kiowa, 1906–1984) was an aerial photographer for the Army Air Forces during World War II.

Photo by Horace Poolaw. Courtesy estate of Horace Poolaw


Why Do Native Americans Serve?

It doesn’t seem to make sense: why would American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians serve a government that overran their homelands, suppressed their cultures, and confined many of them to reservations? The reasons are complex.

Honor dance welcoming home Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr. (right, holding the American flag) after his service in the Korean War. To his right are members of the Kiowa War Mothers. Carnegie, Oklahoma, ca. 1952.

Poolaw (Kiowa, 1922–1967) remains the most decorated American Indian soldier in history, having earned 42 medals and citations during three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Photo by Horace Poolaw. Courtesy estate of Horace Poolaw

Members of the Ton-Kon-Gah, or Kiowa Black Leggings Society, discuss what it means to be a veteran before the start of a ceremony in memory of those who fought. The tipi depicts battles in which Kiowas participated and lists the names of all Kiowas killed in combat since World War II. Near Anadarko, Oklahoma, 2014.

Photo by Nicole Tung

For thousands of years, Native Americans have protected their communities and lands. A warrior’s traditional role, however, involved more than fighting enemies. Warriors cared for people and helped in any time of difficulty. They would do anything to ensure their people’s survival, including laying down their lives. Many Native Americans view service in the U.S. armed forces as a continuation of the warrior’s role in Native cultures.

American Indian students from Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Hog Island Shipyard, Pennsylvania, September 4, 1918.

Native people served the war effort in many different ways, including working in defense industries. These students from the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, boarding school built ships during World War I.

Popperfoto / Contributor