Throughout November, the nation will celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month. This year’s theme is “Serving Our People, Serving our Nations: Native Visions for Future Generations.”
On Nov. 11, Americans also will celebrate Veterans Day. Through these two observances, Americans can celebrate not only the significant contributions of American Indians and Alaska natives to our heritage and culture but also their contribution to this country’s defense. “I am proud of the contributions of American Indians and Alaska natives to the heritage and legacy of America,” said Col. Trent Edwards, 42nd Air Base Wing commander. “As a military member, I am particularly proud of the contributions to our nation’s defense of American Indians. From the American Revolution to Operation Enduring Freedom, they have served this nation with valor and honor.”
The Boy Scouts of America, in 1915, originated the idea of a national recognition of American Indians.
By 1950, several states had recognized an American Indian Day, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford declared Oct. 10-16 as Native American Awareness Week.
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress officially proclaiming November as National American Indian Heritage Month.
“During the month of November, I encourage our entire Maxwell-Gunter team to participate in National American Indian Heritage events and equally reflect on the diversity of America and the contributions of so many that keeps America so great,” Edwards said.
American Indians have significantly contributed to the heritage and culture of this country. For example, many still consider Jim Thorpe, whose mother was a Sac and Fox Indian, as one of America’s greatest athletes. Also, Maria Tallchief, whose father was Osage, received global recognition as America’s first prima ballerina.
American Indians have honorably served in all U.S. armed services since the American Revolution.
American Indians fought on both sides during the American Civil War, served as scouts during the Frontier Wars in the late 1800s, and were with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, Cuba in 1898.
During World War I, about 12,000 American Indians distinguished themselves in the brutal fighting in France. Of the approximately 600 Oklahoma American Indians, mostly Choctaw and Cherokee, assigned to the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division, four received France’s Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) and others received Britain’s Church War Cross for gallantry for acts of heroism in combat.
More than 21,000 American Indians, including 800 women, fought in World War II. In November 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force’s Office of Indian Affairs reported that 71 American Indians had received the Air Medal, 51 the Silver Star, 47 the Bronze Star, and 34 the Distinguished Flying Cross. Five received the Medal of Honor, one posthumously.
Navajo Code Talkers
Perhaps the most famous group of American Indian servicemen during World War II was the Navajo code talkers. Serving as Marines in the Western Pacific, they provided secure communications for Marine ground operations, using a code developed from their native language. The Japanese military never broke the code.
The Navajo code talkers played a pivotal role in saving lives and hastening the war’s end in the Pacific theater. Marine Cpl. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, was one of the six men who raised the American flag over Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, an event captured in the Marine Corps Memorial near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., is named after Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, who was one-eighth Osage Indian. He was the first American Indian to be promoted to general officer. He died on a flying mission after the battle of Midway in June 1942.
During our history, 30 American Indians have recieved the Medal of Honor: 16 during the Frontier Wars, seven during World War II, five in the Korean War and two in the Vietnam War.
As we celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month throughout November and Veterans Day on Nov. 11, let’s remember the thousands of American Indians who have honorably served in this country’s armed forces throughout its history.
AUTHOR: Dr. Robert B. Kane
Air University Director of History
The name code talkers is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater. Code talking, however, was pioneered by Choctaw Indians serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. Other Native American code talkers were also deployed by the United States Army during World War II, including Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers.
The code talkers received no recognition until the declassification of the operation in 1968. In 1982, the code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who also named August 14, 1982 “Navajo Code Talkers Day”.
On December 21, 2000 the U.S. Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, Public Law 106-554, 114 Statute 2763, which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original twenty-nine World War II Navajo code talkers, and Silver Medals to each person who qualified as a Navajo Code Talker (approximately 300). In July 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush personally presented the Medal to four surviving original code talkers (the fifth living original code talker was not able to attend) at a ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. Gold medals were presented to the families of the 24 original code talkers no longer living.
On September 17, 2007, 18 Choctaw code talkers were posthumously awarded the Texas Medal of Valor from the Adjutant General of the State of Texas for their World War II service.
On November 15, 2008, The Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-420), was signed into law by President George W. Bush, which recognizes every Native American code talker who served in the United States military during WWI or WWII (with the exception of the already-awarded Navajo) with a Congressional Gold Medal of individual design for his tribe (to be retained by the Smithsonian Institution), and a silver medal duplicate to each code talker.