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Thursday, August 18, 2005

"American Indians in WWI" by Thomas A. Britten

“American Indians in World War I: at War and at Home,” by Thomas A. Britten. (University of New Mexico Press, copyright 1997. ISBN 0-8263-2090-2) Thomas Britten is an history professor who specializes in twentieth-century Indian history.

An Indian was among a group of recruits coming to boot camp. He was the only Indian but there were both black and white recruits and this was in the days when the companies were segregated. The stereotypical bellowing sergeant was separating them: “All you black guys go over there. All you white guys go that way.” The Indian stood quietly, waiting for his instructions. “Whaddaryadoin?” bellowed the sarge. “Get movin’!”

“I’m an Indian. Which way should I go?”

The sarge was stumped. He scratched his head. “I don’t care which way you go! Just get movin’!” One can change the story to suit oneself about which group the Indian joined and why, but the dilemma of just what an Indian “was” plagued the army for a long time. Maybe still does.

Probably most people who think about American Indians greatly underestimate the influence of world events on the local tribes. Even the Bushian Middle Eastern expeditions are changing what happens at home, offering both opportunities and challenges to individuals and reconstructing the way government operates in regard to Indians. In this book it becomes clear that WWI was one of the main ways that the government was able to justify the continued removal of Indian lands from Indian ownership (“Well, they aren’t using it, are they?”) and the on-going erosion of treaty obligations. (“We need the money for war! What are you, unpatriotic?”)

This book is organized in chronological “before, during and after” fashion and traces both the forces of war that caught everyone up in a great tsunami of events, raised them to emergency levels, and then dropped them back -- changed, damaged, and sometimes strengthened. One of the themes is that though one might trace a continuity of forces -- such as the pressing need to grow more food, the beginning of diversion of trust funds belonging to Indian people into the national treasury for national purposes, and the pushing aside of Indian needs and justice -- every tribe and person had a unique experience which might have been either negative or postive. Some discovered new strengths and some were forced under, whether they were white, Mexican or black. (Asians are not discussed.)

The book supplies many powerful anecdotes about incidents. For instance, Indians were seen (in the usual split way) as either savage and lazy drunks who were fit only for manual labor or as noble warriors who always knew which way was north, could “smell” the enemy, and had supernatural powers of strength and endurance. The soldiers themselves tried mightily to live up to their reputations. The Germans, who had always romanticized Indians, were properly intimidated by the idea of Indian soldiers hunting them down.

This was WWI, trench warfare in which opponents crouched all day in hand-dug, grave-deep, mud holes, and then went out into the night to prowl No Man’s Land and try to avoid barbed wire. Machine guns and airplanes had just been invented and being caught out of the trench when there was enough light to rake the ground with bullets was deadly. An Indian scout returning at dawn was seen to be carrying a wounded compatriot on his back. The Indian was crawling on all fours and when he got close those in the trench could see that he was not crawling to avoid gunfire but rather because his feet had already been shot off. Many men were gassed and many were traumatized.

Indians from the tribes with a warrior tradition were particularly motivated and had traditions and stories to sustain them. But every tribe was different and some chose not to enlist. The draft required “everyone” to register but was supposed to draft only citizens. But there was much confusion about whether Indians were citizens or aliens, could be addressed in categories or as individuals (Universal Indian citizenship was one of the results AFTER the war but individuals who had been declared “competent” -- usually because someone could get hold of their land that way -- were considered citizens, unless they were “aliens” which was an unclear category, especially for binational tribes.) Decisions were left up to the local draft board with the usual tweaking of the situation to favor those in power. Of course, Indians could and did enlist in high proportions.

Before WWI there was a conviction that Indians were “vanishing” and that the scientific community should put much effort into recording their cultures before they were gone. During the war they did “vanish” -- at least from the news and the concerns of Congress -- and conditions got so bad that a reform movement was triggered after the War.

The books begins the account of Indians fighting for the just-born USA with the tribes who agreed as “nations” to help the nascent states fight England -- thus depriving us all of learning French. It continues with what amounted to “mercenaries” working as scouts and then experiments with Indians as regular cavalry since they were excellent horsemen. (They complained about riding with pants on since they felt their bare legs against the horse’s hide was part of their skill.) At the time of WWI there were Wild West Shows touring Germany and the Indians in them were scorned, abused and expelled along with the rest. Some were mistaken for Serbs and arrested. In response, their tribes (Onondagas and Oneidas) declared war on Germany, making the point that they were sovereign nations.

Because the army was trying to sort recruits using newly invented intelligence tests and since the tests (which evaluate people according to their similarity to “average” people, though the actual contents were developed by using college students) they showed that anyone not like these mostly urban whites were “stupid.” This is the body of writing that was available when Doug Gold, superintendent of schools on the Blackft reservation, wrote his notorious thesis about how full-bloods are “dumber” than mixed bloods. Appalachians, Southerners, Hispanics, and so on were also labeled by these tests.

This book is an important cautionary tale for those whose tribal relatives are now serving in Iraq. The Korean and Vietnam stories are being told now. It will soon be time to speak of the Middle East. This book has an excellent bibliography, many notes, and an index.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to see more work on this subject. To my knowlege, there's only one other book out there. I've been working on a novel about these men were an important part of the AEF effort and many had enlisted before the US entered the war, as some Native Americans had been attacked in Germany earlier. It should be noted certain Indian tribes declared war on Germany before the US, not only for the attacks but as a way to declare their own soverenty (sp). My grandfather serves with some Indians in France an as we're an Eastern Ky family with our share of Cherokee blood, he wss especially interested and complimentary of the Indians he fought with. I'm sure his stories were exaggerated. Having been in Vietnam, I find my memories run together with what might not be exactly what happened but I loved to hear Grandpa's stories about his adventures in WW1. He was a young boys dream come true and a true warrior of his time. At least that's the way he told it.