American Indian Veterans Memorial Label Copy

Veterans Memorial Exhibit

Panel text

Edited by Deb Paddison, 9/13/12

[First Panel]

 American Indian Veterans National Memorial

“Honoring the American Indian veteran is an integral part of Indian lore throughout Indian Country. Two things are true: We honor the elderly, and we honor veterans.”

—Dr. George Blue Spruce, Pueblo (Laguna/Ohkay Owingeh), U.S. Navy

Defending Homeland, Defending Freedom

 The story of American Indian Warriors begins before there was a United States of America, and the Warrior Tradition continues rich and strong today. Honoring Warrior leaders is also a tradition that is an integral part of the story. In this spirit, the Heard Museum joins with those who keep the honoring tradition and tell the stories of bravery and sacrifice.

Medal of Honor Recipients

The Medal of Honor was created during the American Civil War and is the highest military decoration presented by the United States government to a member of its armed forces. It is awarded for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of the individual’s own life above and beyond the call of duty in action against an armed enemy of the United States.


19th Century

Between 1869 and 1890, 16 American Indian scouts received the Medal of Honor for bravery in action during Indian Wars throughout the West.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the following American Indians have received the Medal of Honor in the 20th century.


World War II

2nd Lt. Van T. Barfoot (Chockaw)

2nd Lt. Ernest Childers (Creek)

Cmdr. Ernest Edwin Evans (Cherokee/Creek)

1st Lt. Jack C. Montgomery (Cherokee)

Pfc. John N. Reese, Jr. (Cherokee)


Korean War

Pfc. Charles George (Cherokee)

Capt. Raymond Harvey (Chickasaw)

Master Sgt. Woodrow W. Keeble (Standing Rock Lakota Sioux)

Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr. (Winnebago)



Lt. Michael E. Thornton (Cherokee)

Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class James E. Williams (Cherokee)

Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez (Yaqui/Mexican-American)

[Second Panel]


17th to 19th Centuries [White Swan Painting on this panel]

From the 17th through the 19th century, American Indian warriors fought to defend their homeland and way of life. The sides they chose in battle varied with each tribe’s assessment of how the conflict would impact their people. Tribes fought on both sides in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

  • In the American Revolution, Tyonajanegen, an Oneida woman married to an American Army officer of Dutch descent, fought on horseback at her husband’s side during the Battle of Oriskany in August 1777. When he was shot in the wrist, she loaded his gun for him.
  • Three cadets of American Indian descent are recorded as being graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the early 1800s. Some historians list 1822 graduate David Moniac (Creek) as the first American Indian graduate. Moniac achieved the rank of major before being killed in battle during the Second Seminole War, which began in 1835.
  • During the Civil War, Lt. Col. Ely Samuel Parker (Seneca), an attorney, served as adjutant to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and is believed to have written the final draft of the Confederate surrender terms. He was the first American Indian to be appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
  • Brig. Gen. Stand Watie (Cherokee) commanded the Confederate Indian Cavalry Brigade, largely composed of Cherokee, Muskogee and Seminole Indians. His cavalry troop is recorded as fighting the last battle of the Civil War.
  • In 1865, returning Civil War veterans and citizens formed the 1st Arizona Volunteer Infantry as a part of the Arizona Army National Guard. It included companies of Pee Posh (Maricopa) and Akimel O’otham (Pima) Indians who had participated in campaigns during the Apache Wars. This is the origin of the present-day 158th Infantry Regiment of the Arizona National Guard, known as the Bushmasters.
  • Ten Apache scouts who had served with Lt. Col. George Crook in the Apache campaign of the winter of 1872-1873 were awarded the Medal of Honor in 1875.
  • War Department Order No. 28, issued in 1891, authorized creation of all–American Indian units in cavalry and infantry regiments. By June 1891, there were more than 400 American Indian enlistees in the American military. The program ended in 1897.
  • American Indians served in the Spanish-American War. According to the historian Thomas Britten, many were advance guards and scouts and served in non-combat roles with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba.
  • Four American Indian Catholic Sisters from Fort Berthold, North Dakota worked as nurses for the War Department. They served first in Florida and then Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
  • By 1879, American Indians served in the one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s predecessors, the U.S. Life-Saving Service. People of the Quinault and Makah nations in Washington State were some of the earliest members, rescuing survivors of shipwrecks close to the shore. On the Atlantic Coast, Wampanoag people served, as did the Ojibwe in the Great Lakes.


[Third Panel]

[Panel A]

 20th Century

American Indians have been recognized for volunteering in our nation’s armed forces during the 20th and 21st centuries. This, despite the fact that many were not legally citizens of the United States until 1924, and, in some states, were not permitted to vote until the 1950s.


World War I

  • Although not legally citizens of the United States until 1924, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of adult Indian men participated in the military in World War I, as compared with 15 percent of all adult men who served.
  • American Indians suffered an estimated 5 percent casualty rate, dying in action, as compared with 1 percent for the American Expeditionary Forces as a whole, according to scholar Russel L. Barsh.
  • Fourteen American Indian women served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War I; two served in France.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Defense, approximately 600 American Indians from Oklahoma, mainly Choctaw and Cherokee, were part of the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Division of what were originally the Texas and Oklahoma National Guard units that fought in France. Joseph Oklahombi (Choctaw), Company D, 141st Infantry, 36th Division, received the Croix de Guerre for his service.
  • Boarding schools, with their military orientation, were important in the recruitment of trained Indian soldiers. According to historian Thomas Britten, nearly all of the eligible students from boarding schools served and at least 90 percent were volunteers. In June 1918, the Phoenix Indian School reported 45 of its students in the Army and 12 in the Navy.
  • Since the 1870s, official government policy in boarding schools included the eradication of Native languages. However, in World War I and to a much greater extent in World War II, American Indian language speakers rendered critical service as Code Talkers.
  • In World War I, languages of six tribes were used: Cherokee, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, Yankton Sioux and Choctaw. In some instances there were only two speakers of a language. The Choctaw had the greatest number, with 19 Code Talkers, using special code words when describing objects or situations for which there were no words in their language.


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[Panel B]


World War II

  • Within the first six months following the United States’ declaration of war on December 8, 1941, 7,500 American Indians enlisted.
  • According to Coast Guard Magazine, Coast Guardsman MoMM2/c Joseph R. Toahty (Pawnee) was “the first Native American to participate in an offensive operation with United States naval forces in World War II.” Toahty enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1941 and trained to become a landing craft coxswain.
  • Dr. George Blue Spruce, Pueblo, (Laguna/Ohkay Owingeh), U.S. Navy, was present at the Santa Fe Indian School and recalls all of the seniors on the football team volunteering for military service during halftime of their 1942 homecoming game.
  • All of the seniors on the Santa Fe Indian School football team volunteered for military service during halftime of their 1942 homecoming game.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Defense, by the end of the war, 44,500 American Indian men and women had served in both the European and Pacific theaters. This was more than 10 percent of the American Indian population during the war years.
  • Nearly 800 American Indian women served in the military during World War II.
  • The World War II American Indian Code Talker Program began in 1940 with the Chippewa/Oneida. Nineteen tribes participated in Code Talker units for the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Marines. The tribes were:



Canadian Cree (6+ tribal members)


Chippewa/Oneida (17 tribal members)


Comanche (17 tribal members)


Hopi (10 tribal members)




Meskwaki (Sac and Fox) (8 tribal members)

Muscogee/Creek and Seminole

Navajo (420)


Sioux (Lakota/Dakota dialects) (3+ tribal members)

Sioux (Lakota) (13+ tribal members)

Sioux (Yanktonai) (7+ tribal members)


Of the languages used, it was the Comanche, Hopi, Meskwaki and Navajo languages that were used to develop an actual code.

  • Code Talkers were engaged in combat in a variety of locations. Navajo and Hopi Code Talkers served in the Pacific, Comanches fought in Europe and Meskwakis fought in North Africa.
  • Among the best-known American Indian soldiers of World War II was Cpl. Ira Hamilton Hayes (Pima) from the Gila River Indian Community. Hayes enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1942 and took part in hard-fought Pacific campaigns, including the battle for Iwo Jima. He and five fellow Marines were photographed raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi in the midst of battle. The image came to symbolize the epic struggle and ultimate victory of the war.


  • American Indians in the U.S. Coast Guard were not limited to members of coastal tribes. According to Dr. William Thiesen, one example is James Leftwich (Chickasaw), who enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1943 at age 14 and retired as an officer in 1964.


Service in Korea

  • As a result of records not specifically designating whether a soldier was American Indian, estimates of the number of American Indians who served in Korea vary widely, from 10,000 to 29,000. Many American Indians who had served in World War II also served in Korea.
  • Joseph James “Jocko” Clark (Cherokee) was the first American Indian to achieve the rank of full admiral. In the Korean War he was the Commander of the Seventh Fleet. He was also the first American Indian to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, in 1917.


While serving in the U.S. Navy Submarine Fleet in 1957, Dr. George Blue Spruce, the first American Indian dentist, received a special assignment for the crew members of the USS Nautilus, the first operational nuclear-powered submarine. He had to perform dental work to prepare their teeth to withstand the high pressures they would be experiencing on their upcoming history-making journey under and around the North Pole, which the submarine completed in 1958.

Service in Vietnam and Southeast Asia

  • Approximately 42,000 American Indians served in Vietnam. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 90 percent of them were volunteers. The average age of the American Indian Vietnam soldier was 19.
  • In Vietnam, American Indians served in disproportionately higher numbers in elite combat units, such as Special Forces, Recon, Airborne and Rangers.

In 1981, Midshipman Sandra L. Hinds became the first Native American woman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy.



[Fourth Panel]

[Panel A]


Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, 22,569 enlisted service members and 1,297 officers on active duty were of American Indian heritage in 2010. While 1.4 percent of the U.S. population is American Indian, 1.7 percent of the military is American Indian, representing the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to defend the United States.


Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)


  • Approximately 3,000 American Indians served in these wars; there were three combat deaths.
  • In 2003, Spc. Lori Ann Piestewa (Hopi) with the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps became the first American Indian woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces to be killed in Iraq. Her memory is honored through the annual Lori Piestewa National Native American Games and the name of a landmark mountain in Phoenix.


In addition to service in combat, some notable events in American Indians’ recent military service include:


  • In 2002, Commander John B. Herrington (Chickasaw) became the first American Indian in space, on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
  • In 2004, the guided missile destroyer USS James E. Williams was commissioned. It is named after one of the Navy’s most decorated veterans and recipient of the Medal of Honor, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class James E. Williams (Cherokee).
  • In 2010, the graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy included 28 Native Americans.
  • Out of a student body of 4,400 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, more than 40 American Indians belong to the Native American Forum. According to Leticia Leizens writing in Indian Country Today, this organization supports student transition from civilian to cadet and from cadet to officer.


This poem written by Mary Elizabeth Frye in 1932 has endured for 80 years, has been translated into many languages and set to music by many composers. It has comforted people around the world and did so at a memorial service for Lori Piestewa. Her family offers it to the American Indian Veterans National Memorial.


Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft star-shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.