75 years after WWII, a look at the Native American impact

Indian Country Today

On the Indian Country Today newscast for Wednesday, September 2, 2020 is guest James Riding In, American Indian Studies associate professor at Arizona State University, followed by national correspondent Mary Annette Pember

Seventy-five years ago Japan surrendered, officially ending World War II. Associate professor of American Indian Studies and Navy veteran James Riding In, Pawnee, says the fact that speaking Indigenous languages helped win the war was "ironic." He comes from a military family and describes the trauma his dad experienced as a young boy who was ripped away from his great-grandmother by federal agents. His father didn't speak any English when he was forced into boarding school.

Also on the newscast Indian Country Today's national correspondent Mary Annette Pember talks about the Spiritual Exemplars fellowship. It's sponsored through the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Just before the pandemic hit, the award sent Pember to Nepal where she talked to Indira Ranamagar of the Magar tribe and the founder and director of Prisoners' Assistance Nepal, a non-profit charitable organization helping incarcerated women and their children.

Here are a few of their comments:

James Riding In

"I'd like to say that I'm a fourth generation veteran starting with my great grandfather who was a scout, my grandfather who was in World War I, my father who was in World War II, I was in Vietnam and all my brothers were also in the service. So I come from that military tradition and have began to question aspects of that relationship with Indian people. So I think the service has had good and not so good outcomes for Indians but despite that Indians, as I've indicated, have served in the U.S. military for years stemming back to the revolutionary war period. And it continues up to this day World War II was one of those Wars where approximately 40% of the American Indian population signed up or participated in the war."

"The numbers were high. The figures are kind of hard to verify because at the beginning of the war those who registered for the draft were listed as either black or white. So the ratio, standards of the United States were present in the military, although Indians did not serve in segregated units, like African-Americans."

"My father was in the coast guard. He served in the Aleutian Islands. I had an uncle who was in the army but like a lot of veterans they don't like to talk about their experiences unless you really prod them but we had people who earned medals, Navy crosses for gallantry."

"So many Indians died in the war also. And this war killed millions of people around the globe. So it was one of those, I think, justified wars that was against tyranny and fascism and genocide. So they've been called the greatest generation and in many ways, those people were, most of them came from poverty. My home area of Pawnee, Oklahoma the young boys when they weren't in boarding schools would have to help sustain their families."

"They were familiar with outdoors, the rigors of outdoor life. They had skills and shooting and they had also been subjected to federal boarding schools that were very harsh in their discipline. My father, who was born in 1916, he was taken from his great grandmother who raised him and he was taken by federal agents from his great grandmother and placed in a boarding school and he didn't speak any English. So he experienced the trauma of teachers and a disciplinarian trying to beat the Indian out of him. And this happened to many, many others."


"It's ironic that the federal government was trying to stamp out Indian languages and yet during the second world war. And it even goes back to the first world war with Choctaw code talkers. But during the second world war, the use of code talkers was more widespread and it involved many different Indian nations. The Navajo code talkers have received the most attention because in 1968 there service was declassified and they could begin talking about it. And as time progressed, more and more Indians began to talk about their roles as code talkers or serving in the U.S. military."

"Ira Hayes was from the Gila River Reservation and he had attended school at Phoenix Indian School, where you are now. That photo did capture him...It brought him fame and he didn't want fame. He didn't consider himself a hero. He resisted being sent on a war bond tour by the Marines. And he, you know, as a boarding school student and a war veteran, combat veteran, he probably experienced post traumatic stress syndrome and that probably led to his death after he got out of service. So yeah, the war injured, many people that way mentally, they came home and things just weren't right again because of what they saw, what they did during the war in those years."

"Women served in world war II in various capacities, some joined the branches of the military that had women's services available for them. And they served as nurses, clerical, they served in positions mostly that would create opportunities for more men to go to war. So I think that was one of the main reasons that the military began to turn the women to do so much of the clerical work and many others work in the war industries in positions called Rosie the Riveter, making ships, airplanes, munitions for the war effort. And they also contribute to the war effort on reservations by forming groups, like war mothers to support their sons, gold mothers, star mothers, to support their sons who were in the military, provide support for those families of those who were killed or wounded in battle."


"Let me say something about the veterans who served and what came after the war. Many of them became leaders and spiritual leaders, political leaders, and after the war Indians were rewarded - if you want to call it that - by the termination policy, the attempts of the federal government to do away with Indians as Indians. To end the trust relationship. And to say, this was done to cut the federal budget, a series of laws were passed to facilitate that termination process but one of the more favorable aspects of the law was the G.I. bill. And my father, as I mentioned, was in the coast guard and served in the Aleutian islands...he took advantage of the G.I. bill and went to college and he became an educator. And many other veterans also did that. And many of our families ended up in New Mexico and Arizona, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs because that was one of the few organizations where Indians could be higher. There's still a lot of racism, systemic racism against the Indians going on."

Mary Annette Pember

"It's a small country. It's about twice the size of the Navajo Nation and it's squeezed between China and India and primarily mountains. About 35 percent of the population is Indigenous and there's quite a few different tribes. It's a predominantly Hindu culture, as far as the way this society is structured but the tribes they will also have their own individual, like spiritualities that they follow over Hinduism. The story that I chose to look at, we had a number of people to choose from. And the notion was that we would speak to people, humanitarians and find out how their spirituality informed their work."

"Indira Ranamagar who runs Prisoners Assistance Nepal was one of the women that I chose and she goes out and visits prisons. And she also has created schools for prisoners' children. Women in Nepal have to take their children to prison with them. Well, they don't actually have to take them but if they don't and if they don't have anybody to care for them, their children probably would just end up on the streets. So women often end up keeping their children with them. So the children are just in prison as well and they sleep with them and just live with them all day."

"One of the prisons that we actually got access to was Jhapa District Prison, which is out in the far Eastern district of Nepal. It's a skinny country and this is an area which is like a lowland tropical subtropical area and it's a little bit of like a smaller town and we were able to get inside. That's actually where Indira Ranamagar grew up. So we went inside the prison and the population, I think exceeds by about two thirds the capacity for which the prison was designed."

"Women at night, they sleep in this cell, they have like mats that they roll up and keep on shelves on the wall and they take them down. And then during the day they're out in just an open courtyard, they wouldn't let me take pictures of the interior cell which it was kind of a shocking sight cause it's so small but they did let me take photos in the courtyard."

"We did sit and visit with some of the women and one woman in particular being from a tribal group in Nepal. Her son is able to live outside the prison, he's 11 and he goes to school. So we also got to visit him and she was very proud of her son. I'm very happy that he was able to go to school."


"The people that are in prison, especially among women, primarily for property crimes, maybe prostitution, sex trafficking, drugs, they're typically the crimes committed by poor people as a means to rise out of poverty. And actually Indira said, she felt like the women were rather than criminals, they were really survivors. And I think that's an accurate description."

"The authorities aren't allowing visitors in prison, which is really difficult because you know, these observers and advocates aren't able to get inside. Indira and her workers do drop off PPEs and some food and supplies for the women because there's really nothing for them to do inside. They just languish both themselves and their children. But the Nepal government is not especially transparent even at the best of times. So there's really not very much information about the rate of COVID-19 infection or the deaths."

"I think that for me, visiting Nepal, I've lived in Nepal in the past and I think it's just the commonalities of Indigenous people all over the world. The woman that runs Prisoner's Assistance Nepal, Indira Ranamagar, she's an auntie, she's like the kind of person that we see in our community. She's this woman, this really tough go-to woman who champions others. And so these Indigenous aunties are sort of a common feature throughout Indian country."

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