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VHP’s Newest Online Exhibit: Legacies of Service: Celebrating Native Veterans

Today the Veterans History Project (VHP) launches a new online exhibit, part of our Experiencing War web feature series. Entitled “Legacies of Service: Celebrating Native Veterans,” the exhibit explores the lives and service experiences of 18 Native veterans who served in conflicts from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given the treatment of their ancestors by the US government, you might be surprised—as I was—to learn that Native Americans have a long legacy of military service. But Native people have served in the armed forces for generations, and their willingness to enlist continues to this day: since 9/11, Native Americans have the highest per-capita rate of military service than any other ethnic group. Our newest Experiencing War web feature personalizes this statistic, offering individual stories of indigenous veterans who served in recent conflicts as well as exploring the collections of those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Man sits with his arms crossed, wearing a military uniform as well as Native American attire.

Tecumseh Underwood at the time of his interview. Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/107900.

Many of the featured veterans cited a family history of military service as a motivating factor for their enlistment. Of Seminole and Chickasaw heritage, Tecumseh Underwood joined the Army in 1963 and became a third-generation soldier. Toni Rae King became the first woman in her family to serve in the military, after she followed the lead of her grandfather and uncles. Sometimes the family influence came within the same generation: Albert Smith lied about his age and joined the Marine Corps when he was just 15 years old, so that he could enter the service at the same time as his older brother, George. Both served as Navajo Code Talkers, using their native language to send undecipherable coded messages while fighting in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Growing up on Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, Jamie Fox was inspired by her own relatives, and also by elders in her community who had served—possibly including Gilbert Horn, a World War II veteran who also grew up at Fort Belknap and who was named chief of the Fort Belknap Assiniboine Tribe in 2014.

Triptych of service photographs of woman in the middle and her relatives, all in uniform.

Service photographs of Jamie Fox and her relatives. Photograph courtesy of Jamie Fox.

Although this common thread of family and community legacy ran through many of the featured veterans’ stories, in pulling together this exhibit, I also noticed the rich diversity of experiences among this group. Many enlisted not out of a sense of family tradition, but because military service offered possibilities that they couldn’t find at home. Some served in combat, while others took on different roles, such as chaplain. Hailing from all over the country, the featured veterans identify with a myriad of tribes, from Wapanoag to Muscogee (Creek) and Yurok. All of the veterans experienced their cultural background in different ways; a few grew up speaking their native language or on a reservation, while others did not.

Recent years have seen an increased acknowledgment and appreciation of Native veterans’ legacy of service, and several of the featured collections are the product of collaborations between VHP and groups dedicated to preserving Native veterans’ stories. VHP worked with the Chilocco History Project, a partnership of the Chilocco National Alumni Association and the Oklahoma State University Library, to preserve these interviews of alumni of the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, an Indian Boarding School in north Central Oklahoma which educated students from 1884 to 1980. Many Chilocco students, including the stories of featured veterans Charles Chupco, Virgil England, and Joe Thornton, went on to serve in the military.

The National Museum of the American Indian recently launched an online exhibit that unpacks the stories of Native veterans. The exhibit is a companion to the newly unveiled National Native American Veterans Memorial, which was designed by featured veteran Harvey Pratt. Located on the National Mall here in Washington, DC, the Memorial was dedicated on November 11, 2020.

VHP is proud to be part of these efforts to document the history of Native American veterans—and we will continue our work to preserve Native veterans’ stories and make them accessible. Keep an eye out for announcements of two new digital tools coming soon—an online research guide known as a LibGuide, which will focus on VHP’s Navajo Code Talker collections, and a Story Map that will visually explore VHP’s Native veteran collections. In the meantime, if you know a veteran of Native descent, please encourage them to get involved with VHP by donating their story in the form of an oral history or other original material.

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