ANADARKO, Okla. – For those who want to read about the experiences of American Indian soldiers and sailors who served their country before many of them were considered U.S. citizens, read “North American Indians in the Great War” by Susan Applegate Krouse.
This book tells two stories. It gives many first-hand accounts of American Indian soldiers with information about their combat experiences, their reasons for enlisting, as well as their frustration with the federal government with regard to veterans’ benefits and lack of citizenship.
It also tells the story of the man who collected 2,846 surveys on Native veterans throughout the country, Joseph K. Dixon. A photographer and writer in the “vanishing American” mold, Dixon eventually became a Native rights advocate in the years between 1918 until his death in 1926.
Much of the book focuses on Dixon’s collection of surveys and photographs, as well as the reasons why more than 12,000 Indians served in World War I, “despite the fact that many of them were not U.S. citizens at the time,” wrote Krouse.
Dixon originally collected this information from Native veterans and their families all across the country as justification to lobby the U.S. government to allow citizenship for all Native people. In addition to trying to earn the right to be citizens, many reasons for fighting in the Great War included patriotism instilled from boarding schools and an extension of the Native American warrior tradition. One of the direct quotes for these motives comes from Sam Thundercloud, Winnebago: “I am fighting for the rights of a country that had not done right by my people.”
There are also specific accounts of war-related deeds such as that told by a Pueblo man, Aniseto Ortega, who said the Germans “had used their last shell on me, and then called ‘Kamerad.’ I answered them with my bayonet.”
Additional chapters focus on jobs such as infantry, artillery, snipers, runners and scouts, as well as other duties both combat and non-combat related. There is also a chapter, “Proud to Be a Warrior,” in which the focus is on the victory celebrations and ceremonies that gave the Great War veterans “a culturally valid way to celebrate their deeds.”
Chapter Seven, “The Discouraging Return Home,” targets the frustrations these veterans had toward government bureaucracy and lost opportunities. For example, Comanche tribal member Calvin Atchavit earned less money from a land lease upon his return home from duty after the Kiowa Agency acted upon his behalf while he served. Also, many Native veterans lost years of their education and tribal positions after serving in World War I.
The final chapter, “Soldiers but Not Citizens,” addresses the primary reason Dixon created the collection – the lack of citizenship for American Indians. One quote from Winnebago Charles Lamere is an answer to the survey question “Are you a citizen?” Lamere’s answer: “supposed to be.”
Krouse adds other information and issues problematic to the citizenship question such as Apache soldiers Private Oliver Betchait and Private Sam T. Kenei, who were allowed to enlist despite their official “prisoner of war” status, and that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 left voting rights up to the states and “did not eliminate government control over land or other assets held in trust, either for individuals or for tribes.”
It is in the Afterward that Krouse critiques Dixon and his predominantly romantic views of Native people. Before the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, Dixon was in the process of writing a work entitled “From Tepees to Trenches.” Although Dixon went into great detail to interview Native veterans, Krouse wrote that Dixon never appeared to use comments he collected and instead depended on “hyperbolic prose” in his writings on Native experience. Krouse sums up Dixon’s work by ultimately stating the collecting of quotes and information on these veterans is Dixon’s most valuable contribution.
Other notable points in the book include tribal members who lived outside their tribal jurisdictions during this time, such as Sgt. Carlyle T. Pinn, a Cherokee listed as living in Jamaica Plain, Mass.; and Sgt. Samuel Mullen, a Comanche listed as living in Evansville, Ind.; Private Mark Leggett, Wylackie of Spyrock, Calif., the only documented case of shellshock in Dixon’s notes; and that at least 12 soldiers documented by Dixon died of influenza. There is also information on Second Lt. John Joseph Mathews, an Osage night flying instructor who would eventually become a novelist and tribal historian.
This book paints a slice-of-life look at the experiences and thoughts of many Native veterans after their return from the trenches of France or from stateside service. For those wishing to expand their knowledge of Native veterans’ issues and part of the struggle for Native civil rights in the 20th century, this is worth reading.