The Department of Defense recognizes that today’s military successes depend heavily on Native Americans:
American Indian and Alaska Native men and women are on active duty today, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world.
living Native Americans are veterans. 11.5 percent of these veterans are female, as compared to 8 percent of all other ethnicities.
Native Americans served in the post-9/11 period in a higher percentage than veterans of other ethnicities, 18.6 percent vs. 14 percent, respectively.
They are Purple Heart recipients, Bronze Star medal honorees, and many have been recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military award of the United States.
The Vietnam experience was an important part of my life. It led to twenty years of service in the Army and countless leadership opportunities. I served as an instructor for the U.S. Army Rangers, an infantry platoon sergeant, platoon leader, and then commander of a large artillery battery.
Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw)
Lieutenant Governor of Chickasaw Nation
One of 42,000 Native Americans who served in the Vietnam War, Keel was awarded the Bronze Star with valor, two Purple Hearts, and numerous other awards for heroism.
Native American Code Talkers
Tens of thousands of Native Americans joined the U.S. armed forces during World Wars I and II (44,000 Native Americans served in World War II; the entire population of Native Americans was less than 350,000 at the time). Native Americans have risen above unparalleled challenges to defend our nation with pride and honor, often providing unique talents critical to the war effort.
Beginning in the late 1800s, Native American children were forcibly placed into government- and church-sponsored boarding schools with the goal of destroying their culture. Despite the governments’ attempts to eliminate indigenous languages, those languages survived and became crucial to the Allied cause. Late in World War I, the military realized the usefulness of indigenous languages in wartime communication.
They assembled what were called telephone squads, groups of Native soldiers who used their languages to create coded messages. During World War II, the United States formalized the use of Native languages, asking soldiers of many different tribal nations to work as cryptologists who developed secret battle communications based on their languages—and America’s enemies never deciphered the coded messages they sent.
Code Talkers, as they were known after World War II, are twentieth-century American Indian heroes who significantly aided the victories of the United States and its allies.
The story of these brave intelligencers is told in the National Museum of the American Indian’s traveling exhibition, Native Words, Native Warriors. Its online companion includes reflections in their own words and supplements for educators to use in the classroom. Expanding on this legacy of service, the national memorial’s complementary traveling exhibition, Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation’s Armed Forces, will bring to light the dedication of all Native Americans who have served.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is depending on your support to honor and recognize Native American veterans. The National Native American Veterans Memorial will be a tribute to our past and present for future generations.