Native Americans and World War II

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Native Americans and World War II

General douglas macarthur meets american indian troops wwii military pacific navajo pima island hopping.JPG General Douglas MacArthur meeting Navajo, O'odham, Pawnee and other native troops on December 31, 1943.


World War II

Navajo code talkers during the Battle of Saipan in 1944.

At one time or another during the war, about 25,000 Native Americans from reservations were in uniform – 21,217 in the Army, 1910 in the Navy, 874 in the Marine Corps and 121 in the Coast Guard. In addition, several hundred Native American women were in service. They served in integrated units and were not kept separate. Thousands more servicemen who did not live on reservations could claim Native American heritage. Bernstein notes that they were a small fraction of the 15 million Americans who served.[1] For every ten drafted, fifteen others volunteered.[2] By 1940, a large fraction of Native Americans lived off reservations; their experiences in the war mirrored the general population. Of special interest was the enormous impact the war had on Native Americans living on reservations, mostly in remote western areas. The war meant the draft for young men, and high paying war jobs in far-away cities for others. Most of those who left the reservations did not permanently return there after the war.[3]


The young men who were drafted served in integrated units. For the first time they got to know whites of diverse backgrounds and were given technical training in the many skills needed by the military. Their fellow soldiers often held them in high esteem, in part since the legend of the tough Native American warrior had become a part of the fabric of American historical legend.

Men from the Navajo tribe received great publicity for their work in relaying messages in Navajo. As English was a common trade language, the conventional U.S. military codes were easily deciphered by enemy cryptographers. Native American languages, especially Comanche and Muscogee (spoken by the Seminole), were used in place of English. Due to the obscurity of these languages, the codes were more difficult to crack and Navajo gained notoriety as the only spoken military code to have never been deciphered.[4]

The resulting increase in contact with the world outside of the reservation system brought profound changes to Native American culture. "The war", said the Native American commissioner in 1945, "caused the greatest disruption of Indian[Native American] life since the beginning of the reservation era", affecting the habits, views, and economic well-being of tribal members.[5] The most significant of these changes was the opportunity — as a result of wartime labor shortages — to find well-paying work.

Post-war readjustment[edit]

Native American veterans encountered varying degrees of success in re-entering civilian life after World War II. Some returned to the reservation, where economic opportunities were bleak. The Navajo viewed their veterans as a positive force, whose service and contact in the war portended progress for the tribe.

Veterans received readjustment checks of $20 a week for 52 weeks while unemployed, and were eligible for G.I. Bill benefits, including free high school and college education, and low-cost mortgages. Veterans moved to cities; the Indian population in urban centers more than doubled (from 24,000 to 56,000) from 1941 to 1950. Some veterans, like Abel in the novel House Made of Dawn, moved to California cities only to experience little success there. More than three thousand Native Americans each lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles after the war; fewer than five hundred, or a sixth of them, were able to find steady jobs. Tellingly, the median income for urban male Native Americans was $1,198 a year, in contrast to $3,780 for the white male population.

In California, many of the "Urban Native Americans" came from the Apache, Hopi and O'odham nations in Arizona and New Mexico; others came from Oklahoma. New York city attracted Iroquois from upstate New York. Tens of thousands of Native Americanslive in major cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Seattle.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alison R. Bernstein, American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (1999) p 40
  2. ^ Stabler, Hollis D.; Smith, Victoria (2005). No One Ever Asked Me: The World War II Memoirs of an Omaha Indian Soldier. Lincoln, Nebraska; London: University of Nebraska Press. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-8032-4324-8. 
  3. ^ Alison R. Bernstein, American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (1999)
  4. ^ Fox, Margalit (June 5, 2014). "Chester Nez, 93, Dies; Navajo Words Washed From Mouth Helped Win War". New York Times. Retrieved August 4, 2014. 
  5. ^ Bernstein, p. 131

Further reading[edit]

  • Bernstein, Alison R. American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (1999)

External links[edit]