Veterans Day and American Indian Heritage Month

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché

November 11 is Veterans Day and November is American Indian Heritage Month. To mark both occasions, we are posting an article that originally appeared on the website of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.

Veterans Day and the Navajo Code Talkers

Navajo Code Talkers, Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, June 1944

American Indians have a long history of participating with distinction in United States military actions — an important point to remember on Veterans Day, November 11, and during American Indian Heritage Month. As scouts and auxiliary troops, Native Americans assisted U.S. troops in the War of 1812 and the Civil War and on the American frontier. More than 12,000 served in the U.S. military in World War I and 44,000 served in World War II, according to the Naval Historical Center.

The World War II Navajo Code Talkers are perhaps the best-recognized American Indian military figures. About 400 Navajo Indians served with the U.S. Marines, mostly in the Pacific theater, transmitting secret tactical messages over military telephone or radio communications networks using codes built on their native languages. The National Museum of the American Indian points out that the Code Talkers had to memorize 17 pages of code as part of their training. It was the only battlefield code never broken by the enemy. “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” said one high-ranking signal officer.

The U.S. Army also used some Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi and Meskwaki soldiers during World War II.

Fewer than 50 of the 400 Code Talkers are still alive, and most live in the Navajo Nation reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many are frail or ill.

A hat adorned with Native American symbols to identify an American Indian Army veteran

Some of the Code Talkers’ stories are being preserved through the Veterans History Project of the U.S. Library of Congress, which welcomes stories, letters, videos and other mementos from all veterans about their experiences in World War II and every war since.

The site has collected about 66,000 stories so far. Its page on Experiencing War lists more than two dozen categories of stories that can be accessed online, such as prisoners of war, D-Day, military medicine and military intelligence. By searching the site, readers can also focus specifically on African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian-American or women veterans, or on specific wars or branches of the service.

November is American Indian Heritage Month, and the Veterans History Project includes numerous stories of Native Americans who fought for their country. “American Indians have eagerly served a government which did not always keep its word to their ancestors,” says the opening paragraph of Willing to Serve: American Indians. The site includes about a dozen links, including the stories of Dan Akee, a Navajo Code Talker, Marcella Le Beau, a nurse who served in Europe during World War II, and Joseph Beimfohr, who lost both legs to an explosion in Iraq in 2009.

In 2001, President George W. Bush presented congressional gold medals to four of the original 29 Code Talkers (one was too ill to travel and the others had passed away). Another 300 or so Navajo who had trained as Code Talkers received silver medals. There is more information about the Code Talkers on their official Web site.

Each year more than 600,000 U.S. military veterans die. That comes to about 1,800 every day. Some are young people, and that loss is especially wrenching. But most are World War II veterans, and that is also a loss because they take their memories and history with them.

The Veterans History Project could be a good model for every country. “Veterans’ Wartime Memories Find Home in Library of Congress” tells more about the project.

American Indian Heritage Month: A Few Little Known Facts about American Indians’ Service to the United States of America

  • The highest government position held by an American Indian was Vice President. Former Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas served in this position in the administration of President Herbert Hoover. Curtis had previously served in the U.S. Senate for 19 years. Three of his four grandparents were American Indian (Kaw, Osage, and Pottawatomie tribes – the fourth grandparent was French).
  • Four other American Indians have served in the U.S. Senate (most recently Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, a veteran of the Korean War) and eight in the House of Representatives (perhaps the best known being Will Rogers Jr. of the Cherokee tribe, who argued strongly for U.S. intervention in World War II and is known to have said “I never met a man I didn’t like.”).
  • Since 1875, twenty American Indians have been awarded the United States’ highest military recognition: the Medal of Honor. It is given for military heroism “above and beyond the call of duty” to warriors who have exhibited extraordinary bravery in the face of the enemy.
  • Thousands of American Indian women also number among the veterans who have served the U.S. with honor. One of the first casualties of the Iraq War was Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian from Arizona, who died in the famous ambush in which Jessica Lynch and her compatriots were captured. Squaw Peak in Arizona was officially re-named Piestewa Peak in her honor.

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