People ask me, ‘Why did you go? Look at all the mistreatment that has been done to your people.’ Somebody’s got to go, somebody’s got to defend this country. Somebody’s got to defend the freedom. This is the reason why I went.

Chester Nez (Diné [Navajo]), World War II and Korean War veteran

Many of the 10,000 Native Americans who served during the Korean War (1951–1953) had seen action in World War II. Accustomed to military discipline, they reenlisted to serve their country as well as secure a paying job. Others, particularly young men fresh out of high school, were drafted.

Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr., holding the American flag, with members of the Kiowa War Mothers outside in Oklahoma

Photo by Horace Poolaw, 45POW29 © Estate of Horace Poolaw

Honor dance welcoming home Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr. (right, holding the American flag) after his service in the Korean War. To his right are members of the Kiowa War Mothers. Carnegie, Oklahoma, ca. 1952. Poolaw (Kiowa, 1922–1967) remains the most decorated American Indian soldier in history, having earned forty-two medals and citations during three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Native Americans participated in some of the war’s toughest battles. Many were decorated, including five American Indians and two Native Hawaiians who were awarded the Medal of Honor. Approximately 194 Native servicemen never came home.

Two airmen, Ben Nighthorse Campbell and a young South Korean man, sharing a laugh together

Photo courtesy of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell

Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne, b. 1933) shares a laugh with a young South Korean man during his service in the United States Air Force in the Korean War.

Some veterans returned to their tribal communities and became active in revitalizing traditional ceremonies long suppressed by the U.S. government. Their actions reflected a growing conviction in Indian Country: Native people would honor their duty as American citizens while also remaining faithful to their Indigenous way of life.

Master Sergeant Woodrow Wilson Keeble in uniform

Vets Incorporated, Wahpeton, ND

Master Sergeant Woodrow Wilson Keeble, ca. 1955.

A veteran of World War II, Keeble (Dakota Sioux, 1917–1982) volunteered for duty in Korea because, as he put it, “Somebody has to teach these kids how to fight.” Known in his community as a gentle soul, Keeble was also a ferocious front-line warrior who risked his life to save his fellow soldiers during one of the last major U.S. offensives of the Korean War. For his actions, Keeble was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star. In 2008, twenty-six years after his death, Keeble was awarded the Medal of Honor “for conspicuous gallantry . . . at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty.”

John Emhoolah in uniform

Courtesy Debbie Emhoolah

John Emhoolah, ca. 1950

John Emhoolah (Kiowa/Arapaho, b. 1929) was one of five brothers who served in the military. Upon his return from the Korean War, he became active in the fight for Native nations’ treaty rights.