Native Women and World War II

It is with much pride that the Indian woman dons the uniform of her country . . . The Redman is proving to his white brother that he can make an outstanding contribution, both on the home front and behind the firing lines. With the same pride and devotion, the Indian woman is proving herself to be one of Uncle Sam’s priceless daughters.

Margie Williams (Lakota Sioux), Haskell Indian School graduate, 1943.

The war offered unprecedented opportunities to Native women. About 800 were accepted into the WACs (Women’s Army Corps) and WAVEs (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a naval reserve), some serving for the duration of the war and beyond.

Grace Thorpe in uniform sitting at a desk in conversation with a young male co-worker.

Grace Thorpe collection (NMAI.AC.085), negative box 8, item 19, NMAI

Grace Thorpe (Sac and Fox, 1921–2008) at work in General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, in December 1945.

The daughter of famed athlete Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox, 1888–1953), Grace served in the WACs as a recruiter before being sent overseas to New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan in 1944. Corporal Thorpe was later awarded the Bronze Star for her service in the Battle of New Guinea. Following the end of the war, Thorpe remained in Japan and worked at General MacArthur’s headquarters as chief of the Recruitment Section, Department of Army Civilians. After returning home to Oklahoma, she served as a tribal district court judge, health commissioner, and activist.

Women joined the military for many of the same reasons as Native men: to demonstrate patriotism, protect tribal communities, and win the war. Some joined to escape poverty. “One thing about the service,” observed Marge Pascale (Ojibwe), a member of the WACs, “you get two pair of shoes and you get a bed and you get to eat.”

Three Marine Corps Women Reservists, Minnie Spotted Wolf, Celia Mix, and Viola Eastman posing at Camp Lejeune

National Archives photo no. 535876

Marine Corps Women Reservists, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, October 16, 1943. From left: Minnie Spotted Wolf (Blackfoot), Celia Mix (Potawatomi), and Viola Eastman (Chippewa).

As many as one in four Native American women found work on assembly lines and factories in faraway cities. Defense companies trained women for welding and machine-shop jobs, and thousands worked in aircraft and other defense plants on the West Coast.

With a shortage of male labor, Native women on reservations confronted new challenges and embraced novel opportunities. In Wisconsin, Menominee women worked in their nation’s sawmill. Pueblo women drove trucks, hauling freight. For some, wartime meant joining a domestic defense unit. Said one Ojibwe woman, “We have rifles, we have ammunition, and we know how to shoot.”

Illustrations depicting native americans, tomahawks, smoke signals, and native americans with a horse by the post office

World War II war bonds poster featuring work by Native artists from the Santa Fe Indian School, 1942. Made by Eva Mirabal (Taos Pueblo, 1920–1968), Ben Quintana (Cochiti Pueblo, 1923–1944), and Charles Pushetonequa (Sauk and Fox, 1915–1987) for the Government Printing Office. Ink on paper, 95.7 × 60.9 cm. NMAI 26/9677

Eva Mirabal of Taos Pueblo served as an artist in the WACs where she worked on murals and created the comic strip “G.I. Gertie.” After completing her service, Mirabal used her G.I. benefits to study at the Taos Valley Art School.