Monday, May 26, 2008

Honoring Our Warriors This Memorial Day

Although remembrance of our warriors should continue throughout the year, Memorial Day is a special day in which we are reminded to honor all warriors who fought in protecting their villages, against other tribes, either for or against the French, British and Americans, the Civil War, and wars overseas.

When one thinks of American Indians and wars overseas, the first who come to mind are probably the Code Breakers of WWI and WWII. Although these brave men are certainly deserving recognition, they are just a small portion of American Indians who have served in war - many of who received the highest honor given by the U.S. Government - the Medal of Honor.

On 12 April 1875, eleven Apache warriors from Arizona serving in the Indian Scouts were awarded the Medal of honor for gallant action and bravery in the Apache campaigns - Alchesay, Blanquet, Chiquito, Elsatsoosh, Jim, Kelsay, Kosoha, Machol, Nannasaddie, Nanthae, and Rowdy. As time rolled by and other wars were fought, American Indians continued to be awarded the Medal of Honor for military heroism and extraordinary bravery - Jack C. Montgomery (Cherokee from Oklahoma), Ernest Childers (Creek from Oklahoma), Van Barfoot (Choctaw from Mississippi), Mitchell Red Cloud Jr. (Winnebago from Wisconsin), and Charles George (Cherokee from North Carolina).

Lt. Ernest Childers, Lt. Jack Montgomery, and Lt. Van Barfoot were all of the famed 45th Thunderbird Infantry Division. Childers had first distinguished himself in Sicily, where he received a battlefield commission. Later in Italy, unaided and despite severe wounds, he destroyed three German machine gun emplacements. During the Anzio Campaign in Italy, Montgomery attacked a German strongpoint single-handed, killing eleven of the enemy and taking thirty-three prisoners. During the breakout from Anzio to Rome, Barfoot knocked out two machine gun nests and captured seventeen prisoners. Subsequently, he defeated three German tanks and carried two wounded men to safety.

The unit with the most American Indians in WWI was the 36th Division, with around 600 represented in the Company E of the 142d Infantry Regiment as well as in the 358th Infantry Regiment. Half of these had already served in the unit before the war as it was a Oklahoma-Texas National Guard unit. There were also some largely Lakota units, such as Battery B of the 130th Field Artillery, Battery C of the 147th Field Artillery and companies of the 351st and 355th Infantry Regiments. Most of the 12,000 American Indians who served in WWI were scattered and integrated throughout the army.

In 1918 the Iroquois Indians had declared their own war on Germany. Since they were not included in the 1919 Peace Treaty, they simply renewed their Declaration of War for WWII and included Italy and Japan. They passed their own draft act and sent their young warriors into National Guard units. The Chippewa and Sioux joined the Iroquois in declaring war on the Axis.

The Pueblos sent 10 percent of their population to the armed forces for WWII. Wisconsin Chippewas at the Lac Oreilles Reservation contributed 100 men from a population of 1,700. Nearly all the able-bodied Chippewas at the Grand Portage Reservation enlisted. Blackfeet Indians enlisted in droves. Navajo Indians responded by sending 3,600 into military service; 300 lost their lives. Many volunteered from the Fort Peck Sioux-Assinibois Reservation in Montana, the descendants of the Indians that defeated Custer.

On Pearl Harbor Day, there were 5,000 American Indians in the military. By the end of the war, 24,521 reservation Indians, exclusive of officers, and another 20,000 off-reservation Indians had served. The combined figure of 44,500 was more than ten percent of the Native American population during the war years. This represented one-third of all able-bodied Indian men from 18 to 50 years of age. In some tribes, the percentage of men in the military reached as high as 70 percent. Also, several hundred American Indian women served in the WACS, WAVES, and Army Nurse Corps.

The 45th Division *Thunderbirds* (Texas-Oklahoma National Guard) had the highest proportion of American Indian soldiers of any division, and American Indians served conspicuously in the 4th and 88th Divisions, the l9th and 180th Infantry Regiments, and the 147thField Artillery Regiment, plus numerous other different Oklahoma National Guard units. Maj. Lee Gilstrop of Oklahoma, who trained 2 ,000 Native Americans at his post, said, "The Indian is the best damn soldier in the Army."

Exploits by American Indians in WWII are far from few. Maj. Gen. Clarence Tinker, an Osage, was the highest ranking American Indian in the armed forces at the beginning of the war. He died leading a flight of bombers in the Pacific during the Battle of Midway. Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma is named after him. Joseph J. *Jocko* Clark, the first American Indian (Cherokee) to graduate from Annapolis, participated in carrier battles in the Pacific as a Rear Admiral. Brumett Echohawk, of the Pawnee Kit-Kahaki (warrior band) and now a renown Pawnee artist and author, was an expert in hand-to-hand combat and trained commandos. Brummett and William Lasley, a Potawatomie, led the successful charge at Anzio Beach to take the *Factory* which insured that the allied toe-hold at Anzio Beach was secure. Lasley was killed in the first assault.

The stories and lists of names continue through other military actions, reaching the present. Hundreds of American Indians have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Specialist Lori Piestewa, Hopi, was the first service woman killed in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first known Native American service woman known to have been killed in combat. Mike Dawes, Cherokee citizen and former Cherokee Nation law enforcement officer, lost his life in Iraq. PFC Sheldon Hawk Eagle (Lakota name Wanbli Ohitika), who traced his bloodline to Crazy Horse on his father’s side and Sitting Bull on his mother’s side, also paid the ultimate price in Iraq. Corporal Nathan J. Goodiron, from Mandaree North Dakota and with the North Dakota National Guard, died when a rocket propelled grenade struck his vehicle while on patrol in Qarabagh, Afghanistan. Corporal Goodiron’s cousin, C.J. O'Berry, was wounded in the attack.

I wish I knew the names of every single American Indian who has been either wounded or killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Their names should not be lost to history. Nor should all who have served and come back be forgotten.

In speaking of Specialist Piestewa, Oneida Daniel King, president of the Wisconsin Indian Veterans Association, has said: "There is an old warrior saying: 'When you adorn yourself with the implements of war, you are ready to kill. It is only right then, you must be prepared to die as well. As Indian people, we know how to face war, we know how to sacrifice, we know how to honor, we know courage. We know how to remember."

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