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The Remarkable and Complex Legacy of Native American Military Service

Why do they serve? The answer is grounded in honor and love for their homeland


November 12, 2020

On his last day of service in Vietnam in 1963, Harvey Pratt (Cheyenne and Arapaho) poses in Da Nang carrying his rappelling rope that he used to descend from helicopters to clear landing fields. Pratt is the designer of the National Native Americans Veterans Memorial. (Photograph by Ranny Pratt, courtesy of Harvey Pratt)

What has compelled so many thousands of American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians to serve in the U.S. military? It's a question the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian aims to answer with a new book and exhibition devoted to the subject, launching today, November 11, Veteran's Day.

Much of what they document in Why We Serve, Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces-a 240-page book that synthesizes established and novel scholarship-may come as a surprise to non-Natives. "The history of Native American service has always been viewed in a reductionist way by the military and by non-Native American society," write authors Alexandra Harris and Mark Hirsch, senior editor and historian, respectively, at the museum. Natives Americans are 'great warriors.' And yet, "not every tribe had a so-called warrior tradition," they write, "many have had distinctly pacific practices, and most balanced warfare with traditions of diplomacy and peace."

Native service presents a paradox to non-Natives. Why would they fight for America, which has a long history of colonizing, massacring and breaking treaty promises? It is a fraught history, Hirsch says. "Given that history, why is it that we have this remarkable legacy of Native American military service," he adds.


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