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Home front war effort contributions many

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Although World War II stories about the Navajo Codetalkers and Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima, are familiar, many of the younger generation have forgotten or never heard about the home-front contributions American Indians made to the war effort.

In addition to detailing the bravery of the approximately 25,000 American Indian men and women who served in the Armed Forces, the recent re-release of "American Indians and World War II" by Alison R. Bernstein from the University of Oklahoma Press, details the facts of life on the home front.

Both individuals and tribes responded to the U.S. government's call to support the war effort. The Pueblo tribes offered to donate all their cars and trucks to transport war-related materials. Oklahoma's Uchi and Creek tribal councils voted to buy $400,000 in war bonds. The Quapaw Tribe, financially secure from their mineral resources, donated $1 million to the war effort and did not want to accept bonds in return.

The war created a demand for defense industry workers. In response, American Indians moved in record numbers to large cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Albuquerque. They worked in copper and coal mines and at shipyards, ordinance depots and airplane factories. At the end of the war, 40,000 American Indian men who were not in the military and a fifth of American Indian women had moved away from the reservations to work in the war effort.

Some defense projects were deliberately located next to reservations to take advantage of the willing supply of workers. The Wingate Munitions Depot, built next to what is now the Navajo Nation, employed more than 3,000 Navajo workers. Similar projects were built near the Pine Ridge Reservation and the St. Regis Mohawk reservation in New York state.

Not all contributions were voluntary. In 1940, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier sent a letter to the Interior Department inventorying all government-held resources on the reservations that could be used as war industries. Because the schools and hospitals fell under his direction and not that of the tribes, he did not need their consent. Collier's rationale for this move, writes Bernstein, was to secure improvements in the facilities. In the end few improvements were made.

The war also sparked a land grab by the government. In the spring of 1942 it bought more than 400,000 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation, paying only 75 cents an acre and forcing removal of people who had already planted crops.

That same year Collier suggested that the War Relocation Authority lease land from tribes for internment camps for Japanese-Americans. The Colorado River reservation and the Gila reservation in Arizona quickly became the site of camps. The commissioner once more made no attempt to discuss the arrangements with the tribal councils.

"American Indians and World War II" doesn't cover new issues, but reflects a piece of history well worth remembering, not only the acts of heroic Indian soldiers and the sacrifices made by people back home, but the impact of the war on federal Indian policy.

Bernstein, a former associate dean of faculty at Princeton University, details how the war years left a legacy of "detribalization" that led to a government push toward termination and relocation. She makes a convincing case that wartime experiences also laid a foundation for tribal self-determination.

"The post war years did not live up to white expectations that Indians would happily join the white world and abandon the tribal way of life," Bernstein writes. "By the same token, these years demonstrated to Indians that winning more control over their own affairs was only a first step toward overcoming genuine economic and social deprivation."