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Native American Veterans - Storytelling for Healing

Published: October 3, 2012
Native Veterans

Native American Service in the U.S. Military

Large numbers of Native Americans enlist for military service and represent the highest per capita enlistment of any ethnic group in the United States. The reasons vary from supporting their families and ensuring economic stability, to seeing the world. The stories captured on the DVD present firsthand accounts of trauma and life changes as a result of military service.

When World War I erupted, young native men enlisted in numbers that many people might think surprising, considering Native Americans had not yet been granted U.S. citizenship.  The number of Native Americans serving in the military remained high during World War II, even when the social climate was such that Native Americans were not allowed to patronize businesses in many reservation border towns in the Southwest and Plains states.  Despite experiencing discrimination and prejudice, Native Americans proudly displayed portraits of young men in uniform in their homes during this period.

During the last half of the 20th century, Native Americans were frequently forced to assimilate and many ceremonial practices began to disappear or go underground.  Additionally, employment rates on or near reservations continued to decrease.  As a result, serving in the military became a rite of passage for many young native men.  Today, this practice continues not only with our young men, but also with many young native women.

Why did so many native people choose to serve their country?  As presented in the DVD, there were many factors, not the least being the tradition many tribes have of protecting the community.  These tribes continue to view service, sacrifice, and courage as important values and part of an individual’s journey to becoming a leader, protector, and agent of change for his/her family or tribe.  On a more practical level, young natives often join the military because it is a way to see the world, support their families, pay for education, and gain experiences that are not available in their own communities.


U.S. Department of Defense, Information Delivery System, “Active Duty Report by Gender and Race-Ethnic Group-3035 (EO)” July 2005.

U.S. Department of Defense, Information Delivery System, “Active Duty Age Change Report,” September 1987 – July 2005.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Holiday, Lindsay F., Bell, Gabriel, Klein, Robert E., Wells, Michael R., “American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans: Lasting Contributions,” September 2006.


Last Reviewed: October 4, 2016