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Captain Ben Davis Locke (Choctaw) with American Indian soldiers
Captain Ben Davis Locke (Choctaw), in front, with American Indian soldiers at Camp Stanley, 1918. Courtesy of Francine Locke Bray.

American Indians in World War I


American Indians have served as warriors or troops in every war Americans have fought from the Revolutionary War to the present. In America’s wars of the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries, Indians have volunteered for military service in greater numbers, in proportion to their population, than any other identifiable group in American society. Although Indians had served with distinction in the Spanish American War, as America moved closer to entering the war that had begun in Europe in 1914, it remained to be seen how American Indians would respond to the advent of mechanized warfare. Any doubts were quickly dispelled.

Indian service in World War I was not a given when the U.S. entered the war in 1917. Many questioned the Indian’s loyalty and asked whether Indians could or would fight for democracy. During the Dawes Commission period (roughly 1887-1905), they had been accused of being communists because of their resistance to allotment of land and of their desperate attempt to hang on to the common title to their lands. American Indian society seemed too classless, and common ownership of the land seemed un-American. Americans were communist conscious, and by the early teens, there was growing unease in America about events leading toward the Bolshevik Revolution.

Another concern was that a number of tribes had had friendly relations with Mexico from the removal period into the twentieth century, and Mexico had strong, sympathetic ties to Germany. Time would show that our concerns about Mexico were confirmed. The Zimmerman Telegram, sent from the German Foreign Office in January, 1917, sought the alliance of Mexico with Germany. In return, Germany would return to Mexico lands the U.S. had taken from Mexico in the late 1840s. The British had intercepted the message and proved it was authentic, and when they finally informed the U.S. and it made the news, America declared war on Germany.

A final doubt about Indian loyalty rested in the fact that about half of the Indians in America were not citizens of the U.S. A 1901 congressional amendment to the General Allotment Act (1887) made citizens of all Indians in Indian Territory. The Burke Act of 1906 provided for citizenship for Indians when the trust period of their allotments expired. Thus, those who had not received allotments remained non-citizens.

Events soon showed how misguided concerns about Indian service had been. When the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Indians began enlisting immediately, primarily in the Army and Navy. Some tribes wholeheartedly embraced the war effort. Early in the war, for example, the Nebraska Winnebagos organized a company of their own. The Menominees of Wisconsin passed a resolution supporting the declaration of war and pledged not only their men but their tribal funds in the war effort. About 5,000 Choctaws were of military service age. Chief Victor Locke told the press that the Choctaws would serve and that those too old or too young would plant crops to help feed the army. The Onondagas of New York, as a sovereign nation, declared war on Germany.

Of the estimated 336,000 Indians at the time, about 33,000 were males of service age. Most estimates say that by war’s end, over 12,000 were in service. They, for the most part, complied with the draft law although those who were not citizens could have avoided service. And American Indians mobilized on the home front in support of the men in service.