While many are familiar with the role Native American men have played in the United States armed forces, many are surprised to hear that American Indian women also made significant contributions to the military.
From the Spanish American War to the present, Native American women served in war and during peacetime, in traditional and non-traditional roles, and as officers and enlisted personnel.
During the Spanish American War, four Lakota nuns worked in field hospitals in the United States and Cuba. One, Mother Anthony (Susan Bordeaux), died in Cuba as a result of disease contracted during her service. Because the burial corps would not return her body to the United States, she was interred in Cuba with military honors by the 1st Infantry and 7th Cavalry.
Little did these women realize they were starting a tradition of service in the military by Native American women.
During World War I, American Indian women were represented in the Army Nurse Corps, which had been created in 1901 to ensure adequate deployable nursing care for soldiers.
The Red Cross maintained a list of reserve nurses to be called up, if needed, and Lula Owl Gloyne, Eastern Band of Cherokee, was one of those nurses. Assigned to Camp Lewis, Wash., she cared for many war casualties. Later, during World War II, she served as a Red Cross nurse on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina.
Edith Anderson Monture, Mohawk, served in Vittel, France, with the Westchester County (N.Y.) Unit B Medical Corps. There she treated victims of mustard gas, an experience that she would sadly remember her entire life.
Her family reported that Mrs. Monture sustained hearing loss in her left ear as a result of shellfire from German artillery. She was the last surviving nurse from the Westchester Unit.
Cora Sinnard, Oneida, also stationed in France, worked in a hospital set up by the Episcopal Church. Others such as Effie Barnette, Choctaw, and Agnes Anderson, Jamestown S'Klallam also served as Army nurses.
The opportunity for women expanded greatly during World War II., and extended to American Indian women who could be found in all military branches, serving as officers and enlisted personnel.
American Indian women continued the nursing tradition as well and were joining the Army and Navy. Army nurse Julia Nashanany Reeves, Forest County Potawatomi, got a taste of both, when she served temporary duty on the Solace, a Navy hospital ship. Ironically Julia's Indian name was Opta Chug Gitchee Gumee Quay (Half Big Sea Water Woman or Mermaid).
A second irony was the Solace, the most famous of the World War II hospital ships, was originally a civilian luxury liner christened the Iroquois.
Marcella Ryan LeBeau, Cheyenne River Sioux, served with the 76th General Hospital in Europe and remembers the daily buzz bomb attacks and the fateful day one hit the motor pool killing 25 military police and a civilian.
While many American Indian women served in the Army in more traditional roles, Eva Mirabal, Taos Pueblo, had an unusual job. A formally trained artist, she used her talents to help paint 'A Bridge of Wings', a mural that can be seen in Building 262 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
She also created the cartoon strip 'G.I. Gertie' which was printed in the Women's Army Corps publications.
American Indian women were not limited to the Army. The first to join the Marines was Minnie Spotted Wolf, Blackfeet. Others such as Celia Mix, Potawatomi, Viola Eastman, Chippewa, and Esther Quinton Cheshewalla, Osage, also would join.
Those who became WAVES (the women's component of the Navy) served in many areas. Elizabeth Coffee Sullivan, Chickasaw, was a Pharmacist's Mate, 3rd Class. June Townsend, Yuchi, of Oklahoma, chose to join the Coast Guard and became a SPAR.
The Women's Air Service Pilots (WASPs) was formed to free up male pilots for combat. Given the same training as the men, the women pilots transported aircraft or towed gunnery targets.
Ola Rexroat, Oglala, fearing a desk job if she joined the other services chose instead to fly and graduated from WASP Class 44-7. She was assigned to Eagle Pass, Texas where she flew targets and did some ferrying. She is truly a role model for American Indian women in aviation.
During the Korean War, there was a reduction in the number of women, in general, who entered the military. Still, American Indian women felt compelled to join.
Carrie Mae Lucas, Cherokee, was an Army nurse assigned to a MASH unit in Korea. Her memories included the time the hospital was strafed and she and other nurses had to jump into a foxhole for protection.
Sarah Mae Peshlakai, Navajo, was a medical specialist at an Army hospital in Japan, where she cared for Korean battlefield casualties.
Phyllis Old Dog Cross, Mandan/Hidatsa, was an Air Force flight nurse who logged many hours caring for patients at high altitudes.
American Indian women of the Nez Perce, Arikara, Penobscot, Cherokee, Seneca and Lumbee tribes, to mention a few, served during Vietnam.
Mary Brayboy, Lumbee, remembers the heartbreak of caring for wounded soldiers while stationed in Oklahoma.
More recently Native women contributed to the efforts of Desert Shield/Storm. Seneca woman SFC Marcy Cornfield, Bear Clan, deployed to Saudi Arabia and was assigned to the 124th Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence Battalion.
Josette Wheeler, Seneca, served as an electro-environmental systems specialist on B-52G strategic bomber aircraft.
Native American women have also made their mark on the once all-male service academies. American Indian women have graduated from all four academies.
Delores Smith Bubier, Cherokee, was the first to graduate from the Air Force Academy after which she became a navigator on KC-135R aircraft.
Brigitte Wahwassuck, Potawatomi, was the first to graduate from West Point. The first to graduate from Annapolis (Navy) was Sandra Hinds and from the Coast Guard Academy, Janet Emerson Stevens.
The story of our American Indian women veterans has never truly been explored and it is hoped this very brief overview will encourage others to share their stories. It is piece of Native history of which we should be very proud.