Why We Serve

Misty Lakota and Wiliam Pollock in military uniform
I found out I am not only fighting for the little bitty piece of land I talk about, [or] my immediate family.,I found out I was fighting for all the Indian people, all the people of the United States.
Samuel Tso (Navajo), United States Marine Corps
Group of Native American Veterans wearing various military service uniforms in front of the United States flag

Jesse T. Hummingbird (Cherokee, b. 1952), Veterans, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 101.4 x 76 x 3.5 cm. NMAI 26/9780

Why We Serve honors the generations of Native Americans who have served in the armed forces of the United States—often in extraordinary numbers—since the American Revolution.

For some, the Indigenous commitment to the U.S. military doesn’t make sense. Why would Indians serve a country that overran their homelands, suppressed their cultures, and confined them to reservations?

Closeup of Misty Lakota in uniform carrying a flag

Teko Photography

Flag bearer Misty “Iglág Th˅okáhe Wiŋ” Lakota (Oglala Lakota) leads Grand Entry at the 2018 Georgetown University Powwow in Washington, D.C.

Native people have served for the same reasons as anyone else: to demonstrate patriotism or pursue employment, education, or adventure. Many were drafted. Yet tribal warrior traditions, treaty commitments with the United States, and responsibility for defending Native homelands have also inspired the enduring legacy of Indigenous military service.

Why We Serve commemorates the National Native American Veterans Memorial, dedicated at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

Group of Native American men in traditional clothing standing around a drum singing

Zonnie Gorman, courtesy of the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona

Carl Gorman (Navajo, 1907–1998), The Black Pot Drum of the Enemy Way, 1971.

For Diné (Navajo) people, the Enemy Way ceremony heals and restores balance, or hózhó, and counters the negative effects of sustained proximity to death. One Diné veteran received a Blessing Way ceremony before he left for Vietnam and an Enemy Way ceremony upon his return home. He reflected, “When I got back I had a lot of trouble. My mother even called in one of our medicine men. It cost them but my folks had an Enemy Way done for me. It’s a pretty big thing . . . It snapped me out of it.” Both customary practice and contemporary research suggest a correlation between resolving post-traumatic stress and participation in ceremonies connected with warfare and healing.

What does it mean to protect your people?

Eight men of the Choctaw telephone squad posing for a photograph at Camp Merritt, New Jersey

Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Indiana University

Choctaw telephone squad, returned from fighting in World War I. Camp Merritt, New Jersey, June 7, 1919. From left: Corporal Solomon Bond Louis, Private Mitchell Bobb, Corporal James Edwards, Corporal Calvin Wilson, Private Joseph (James) Davenport, Captain Elijah W. Horner.

In addition to Choctaw language speakers, Ho-Chunks, Eastern Cherokees, Comanches, Cheyennes, Yankton Sioux, and Osages were among the Native men who served as code talkers during World War I.

How did Native languages help win wars?

Four Native American Women Warriors, wearing jingle dresses, leading the grand entry during a powwow

© 2014 Nicole Tung

The Native American Women Warriors leading the grand entry during a powwow in Pueblo, Colorado, June 14, 2014. From left: Sergeant First Class Mitchelene BigMan (Apsáalooke [Crow]/Hidatsa), Sergeant Lisa Marshall (Cheyenne River Sioux), Specialist Krissy Quinones (Apsáalooke), and Captain Calley Cloud (Apsáalooke), with Tia Cyrus (Apsáalooke) behind them.

The organization, founded by Mitchelene BigMan in 2012, raises awareness about Native American women veterans and provides resources for support services in health, employment, and education.

Warriors don’t always carry guns.

Native American woman cloaked in traditional blanket standing on the beach
It’s what I breathe and live every day.