Native American soldiers deserving of honors for their World War I service could soon receive those decorations thanks in part to work being done at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Sequoyah National Research Center.
"Some of these [individuals] never got the recognition they deserved, and their families and relatives may not even know about their actions," said Erin Fehr, an archivist and assistant director of Sequoyah National Research Center. "Bringing that valor to light is what it's all about."
Sequoyah National Research Center is partnering with the George S. Robb Centre for the Study of the Great War at Park University in Missouri, home of the Valor Medals Review Project and Task Force, as a team of researchers and historians are researching African American, Native American, Asian American, Jewish American and Hispanic American soldiers who served from 1914 to 1921, according to Angie Faller, news director at UALR.
To qualify for a review of what, if any, other medals they might be eligible for, the service member must have received a Distinguished Service Cross/Navy Cross and/or the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and/or been recommended for a Medal of Honor but downgraded. So far, more than 200 service members have qualified for review, including two dozen Native Americans.
In addition, Fehr said that in her research, she's also discovered 14 Native American women served as nurses during the war. Her new "mission," she said, is to "track down" all those names, and others, if necessary. "I feel there are probably more than 14, and this is a remarkable story nobody knows about."
The Sequoyah National Research Center, which was originally created in 2005, aims to acquire and preserve the writings and ideas of Native North Americans by collecting the written word and art of Native Americans and creating a research atmosphere that invites indigenous peoples to make the Center an archival home for their creative work, according to the university. The collections there constitute the largest assemblage of Native American expression in the world, and the Center has been working to preserve the history of Native American soldiers who served in World War I for years, making it a felicitous choice for this project.
In 2017, when the Center put together a collection on Native American code talkers of World War I as part of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entering the war, "we learned that many people don't even know [Native Americans] fought in World War I," Fehr said. That led to creating a record to document the "incredible" number who did serve.
From 2017 to 2019, Center employees created a website on American Indians and Alaska Natives in the war for the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, as researchers sought to identify all of the estimated 12,000 Native Americans who served during World War I, according to Faller. The website, launched in January 2019, contained more than 6,000 names and has since been archived by the Library of Congress.
"We're now up to about 6,100 names, but it's getting hard," Fehr said. While Black soldiers were segregated into their own regiments during the war, Native Americans were integrated into the ranks with white soldiers, which makes it more challenging to know where to focus, although "we know some units had many" Native Americans, such as the 36th Division, out of Oklahoma and Texas, and the 142nd Infantry.
Military and census records have been helpful in the research, as have newspaper articles from the time, she said. Many Native Americans who fought in the war were treated as "hometown heroes" upon their return, and their local newspapers often wrote stories about them -- including photographs, in many instances.
School records have also been beneficial, as the American Indian boarding schools were "ripe recruiting grounds for the military," because those schools already had military-authority structures, she said. Records from Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was the flagship American Indian boarding school in the United States from 1879 through 1918 -- attended by one of America's greatest athletes, Jim Thorpe, among others -- proved "a treasure trove of information."
Among those who attended Carlisle was James Riley Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, who volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1918, she said. Because Wheelock had his own band which traveled around the country, he was made band director of an all-Black band in the war.
The second lieutenant led the 808th Pioneer Infantry Band to several awards, and "they were great," she said. They were even chosen to play for President Woodrow Wilson and several diplomats at an event following the war's conclusion.
Native Americans also filled roles as doctors and dentists, front-line scouts and bakers, she said. They were believed by many -- especially in the army -- to have "warrior spirit," with their running, tracking, and scouting abilities prized.
"Lots of them served as officers because of their education background, while others were promoted during the war," Fehr said. "I haven't found any evidence of them being treated badly during the war."
While not all Native Americans were U.S. citizens at the time of the war, that didn't prevent them from being drafted; however, they served willingly as volunteers or draftees, and that service "spurred on a drive for their citizenship" after the war, she said. "In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act that made all [Native Americans] in the U.S. citizens, and that was directly related to their war record and loyalty to the U.S."
(Even though they were now citizens, they didn't all have the right to vote, she said. A few states held out, so it took decades longer for them all to gain enfranchisement.)
Native Americans are getting more recognition for their military service, not only in World War I, but throughout American history, including with the recently opened National Native American Veterans Memorial on the grounds of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It honors the many American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians who served dating back to the Revolutionary War.
In 2018, the office of U.S. Rep. French Hill -- a Republican representing the state's 2nd Congressional District -- worked with Dr. Brian Mitchell, then an associate professor of history at UALR, to present the family of the late Pvt. Leroy Johnston (a victim of the 1919 Elaine Massacre, when numerous Black individuals were killed in rural Phillips County) with medals he earned but did not receive during his service in World War I, according to Faller. This collaboration was the inspiration for the World War I Valor Medals Review Act, which ensures that minorities who served in World War I are honored with proper recognition.
Sequoyah National Research Center will continue assisting the Robb Centre's work with the Valor Medals Review Project through 2025, when the task force comes to an end, according to Faller. Anyone who'd like to submit the name of a Native American soldier who served in World War 1 to Sequoyah's database can contact Fehr at email@example.com or fill out an online form at https://ualr.edu/sequoyah/wwi/.