At first glance, the long tradition of Native American service in the U.S. military doesn’t seem to make sense: why would American Indians fight for a country that broke nearly every promise made to tribal nations? “Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces,” the new exhibition adapted from the book of the same name from the National Museum of the American Indian, tackles this question while telling engaging stories of Native military service during the last two-and-a-half centuries. As the book’s authors and editors as well as the exhibition’s curators, we encountered unexpected stories and surprising insights while researching this remarkable––some might say, paradoxical—legacy.
The “Why We Serve” book and exhibition honor the thousands of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians who have served in the U.S. military in every war from the time of the American Revolution. Additionally, the exhibition—which is available to view on the museum’s website (AmericanIndian.si.edu) and previewed here—features historical and contemporary photographs, artworks and stories that consider the various reasons why so many American Indians have worn the uniform of the United States The stories, whenever possible, are told in the words of Native servicemen and servicewomen from both past and present.
Taken together, each of the 16 narratives in the exhibition chronicle a distinguished but largely unheralded part of Indigenous military history that merits acknowledgment and respect.
No exhibition, particularly one as modest as “Why We Serve,” could fully capture the complexity of this Indigenous legacy. By necessity, we made difficult decisions about what content to include. The stories selected are meant to inspire readers to explore further into Native veterans’ histories.
The exhibition features Native servicemen and servicewomen whom some people might recognize. For example, most people may know about the code talkers, who helped Allied forces achieve victories during World Wars I and II. They might have also heard about Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker (Seneca), the highest-ranking American Indian in the Union Army, and Specialist Lori Piestewa (Hopi), who served in the Iraq war in 2003, when she became the first known female American Indian service member killed in combat.
It also includes lesser-known stories about individuals and events, those that are typically left out of conventional accounts of American military history. For example, the four Lakota nuns who served as nurses during the Spanish– American War and the Alaska Territorial Guard, made up of thousands of Alaska Natives who volunteered to defend their homelands from Japanese invasion during World War II.
We prioritized the representation of Native women in a history that typically focuses on men. “Why We Serve” introduces Polly Cooper (Oneida), who brought food and supplies to starving American soldiers at Valley Forge during the American Revolution. During World War I, Native women supported the Allied cause as nurses and as volunteers for the Red Cross, while Native families purchased some $25 million in war bonds––about $75 worth for every American Indian man, woman and child. During World War II, American Indian women served in a military capacity alongside the roughly 12,000 Native women who worked in war-related industries and the uncounted and unsung “army” of Indigenous women who took over jobs formerly performed by men in reservation communities.
Ultimately, this exhibition challenges and explores deeply held assumptions about Native Americans and military service, particularly the notion that all American Indians embrace tribal warrior traditions that motivate them to join the military. To be sure, many Native nations, particularly those living on the Great Plains in the 1800s, have built social and cultural traditions around warfare and that spirit remains a source of pride today. As “Why We Serve” shows, however, warrior traditions are not shared by all tribes and thus cannot explain why Native people participate in the military at such high rates.
Yet if tribal warrior traditions fail to account for military participation, what does? This question has no single answer. Motivations for military service have varied over time and space and from individual to individual. Indeed, many Native individuals have served for the same reasons as anyone else: to demonstrate patriotism, to uphold family traditions of military service that stretch back for generations or to find a stable job and reliable meals—needs that could not always be met at home. Finally, many were drafted and wound up in uniform because Uncle Sam required them to do so. Woven within these basic reasons for service were the singularly Indigenous influences: protecting one’s homeland and way of life, honoring treaty commitments and practices—by both individuals and their communities—of protection, cleansing and healing.
The NMAI does not seek easy answers to difficult questions but rather strives to provide more complete, nuanced understandings of the Native American experience. That means challenging time-honored assumptions and stereotypes, even those held by Native people. It means providing opportunities for the public to acknowledge and think anew about the role American Indians have played in the history of our nation. In the end, it is our greatest hope that “Why We Serve” meets the challenge the U.S. Congress set for the NMAI first in 1994 and later in 2013 when it passed and then amended the Native American Veterans’ Memorial Establishment Act: to recognize and raise awareness of Native Americans’ extraordinary tradition of service in the U.S. Armed Forces.
See the entire “Why We Serve” exhibition online at AmericanIndian.si.edu beginning in November.