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The Great War Showed World the Horror of Total War Natives Knew Too Well

The political upheaval touched off by the assassinations by Gavrilo Princip to start World War I altered the status of American Indians in U.S. law.

On June 28, 1914, a young Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip fired off some pistol shots that were incredibly lucky from his point of view and unlucky from the world’s. Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. The political upheaval touched off by those assassinations took millions of lives, redrew the map of the world, changed the rules of war forever… and fundamentally altered the status of American Indians in U.S. law.

Much of the U.S. media has been running pieces leading up to July 28, the centennial of what used to be called the Great War until WWII came along. After a month of threats back and forth in response to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which triggered mutual defense treaties, one after the other, until Europeans began to speak of “the world” being at war. Europe was, after all, in their minds, synonymous with “the world.”

Austria-Hungary’s alliance, the Central Powers, included Germany and the Ottoman Empire. On the other side were the Allied Powers: Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan. All of these powers, Central and Allied, had imperial interests. After three years of carnage, the United States joined the Allied Powers in what was by that time too big a war to fight with volunteers.

On May 28, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation authorizing conscription of all males between the ages of 21 and 30. As a matter of law, that would be all males who were U.S. citizens (although non-citizens were required to register), and at the time Indians were not generally considered citizens. The distinction in the Constitution of “Indians not taxed” was not understood in a uniform manner, but generally the idea was that Indians maintaining tribal relations were citizens of their tribal nations, but Indians who did not were still the wrong color to be U.S. citizens.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs enforced the requirement that Indians register with some vigor, setting up draft boards on each reservation. Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai) wrote of the peculiar status of Indians in 1917: “They are not citizens. They have fewer privileges than have foreigners. They are wards of the United States of America without their consent or the chance of protest on their part.”

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The Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina was in an even more peculiar position: They were the descendants of Cherokees who had not complied with the bogus removal treaty, New Echota, and their status remained unsettled for many years. But the Indian agent went along with not just their registration, but their conscription. The Six Nations resolved the citizenship complication by declaring war on Germany, so citizens of that confederacy fought not as Americans, but as allies.

Citizens or not, Indians supported the U.S. against the Central Powers in WWI. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, over 12,000 Indians served in WWI. Three quarters of them were volunteers. Indians also bought $25 million in war bonds at a time when most Indians were impoverished.

It was on the strength of this support that Congress determined to grant citizenship to American Indians, most of whom had expressed no opinion one way or the other on whether that would be a good thing—though some who were drafted objected that they were still denied the right to vote. When President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924, it was worded in a way that did not impair tribal citizenship. Nor did it grant the full privileges of U.S. citizenship. John Finger, historian of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, wrote that “registrars in western North Carolina continued to deny the vote to almost every Cherokee until 1946.” Racism was not the only reason. Eastern Band Cherokees were by disposition Republicans, because of New Echota, and the state was run by Democrats.

Citizens of the Southwestern tribes did not get the vote until lawsuits were brought by Indian veterans… of World War II. Indians are still opposing efforts in several states to suppress the Indian vote, opposition made easier by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

U.S. citizenship, even if it did not come to fruition immediately, was a profound change the Great War brought to American Indians. On the other hand, the Great War did not, from the Indian point of view, change the world in the way white historians claimed it did. It is claimed that World War I was the beginning of what we now call “weapons of mass destruction,” of aerial and submarine warfare, and of tactics that erased the distinction between soldiers and civilians. In fact, it only erased that distinction among white people.

For Indians, total war was not a new concept. In the imperialist tool kit, exterminating indigenous Peoples was always an eyelash away from subjugating them, and what made July 28, 1914 so significant was not that it ended the distinction between soldiers and civilians. Rather, it ended the distinction between war practiced between the imperial powers and war practiced upon indigenes.