The Heirs of 1918: WWI and Native American Life

Anxious Bench | 9/17/2019 | Staff
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On the banks of Mille Lacs, Minnesota’s second largest inland lake, there’s a small museum of Native American history. The center of the Mille Lacs Indian Museum is a cycle of life-sized dioramas depicting the seasonal economy of the Ojibwe, a people-group that spent its pre-reservation history moving from site to site depending on whether it was harvesting maple syrup, fish, vegetables, or wild rice. But while my family was waiting for that presentation on a recent visit, we walked around exhibits on the life of the Ojibwe in the 20th century.

I’m so glad we did. I received a welcome reminder that, as often as I teach the history of World War I, there’s much more for me to learn about how that conflict that affected the lives and beliefs of peoples around the world, including the Ojibwe of Mille Lacs.

Census - Indians - % - WWI - Group

The 1910 Census counted just over a quarter-million American Indians, up to 10% of whom served in the American military during WWI. That group includes 14 indigenous women who joined my great-grandmother Nelson in serving as nurses and 19 Choctaw troops who volunteered to communicate messages during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in a language the Germans couldn’t translate. Cherokee, Comanche, and other Indian soldiers would fill the same function later in 1918, anticipating the more famous Navajo “code talkers” of World War II.

Of course, what made that strategy effective is that centuries of European empire in North America left hardly anyone able to speak those languages. Many of the Native Americans who fought in WWI had been students at government-run residential schools, with military discipline reinforcing the goal of “assimilation through immersion” in European-American language and culture.

Soldiers - Marines - Sailors - Rates - Americans

Yet those soldiers, marines, and sailors fought and died at higher rates than white Americans, motivated by a complicated patriotism. “I know I might get...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Anxious Bench
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