Celebrating Native American service

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Rick Garcia
  • 163d Attack Wing

This year, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) has announced the theme of “Serving our Nations” for the observance of National American Indian Heritage Month. November is the month in which we honor “America’s First People.”

Native Americans and the First Peoples of the Alaskan tribes have long been leaders in our civilization. From Dr. Arthur C. Parker of the Seneca tribe, who inspired the Boy Scouts of America’s day honoring the first Americans, to Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian who rode state-to-state on horseback, petitioning for a federal day of honor for Native American Indians, native Americans have consistently appealed for public recognition of their tribes’ contributions to the tapestry of American society.

On Sept. 28, 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association met in Lawrence, Kansas, to formally approve a plan to implement our nation’s first American Indian Day. Reverend Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe and a strident advocate for pan-Indian unity, issued a proclamation declaring the second Saturday of May as American Indian Day.  This was the first ever formal appeal for public recognition of Indians as American citizens. 


New York became the first state in the union to formally declare an official American Indian Day in May, 1916.  Illinois became the next state to officially sanction the recognition of American Indians in 1919.  In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, in which Native Americans were pledged the full protection of the U.S. Constitution as citizens of the U.S.  Massachusetts enacted similar legislation in 1935.  Despite these milestones, it would be 80 years until a sitting U.S. president, Bill Clinton, would designate an annual federal national heritage month for Native Americans. 

Today, American Indians and Alaska Natives comprise 2.4% (5.4 million) of our population. Of these citizens. 27,000 serve in our Armed Forces, and as of 2014, 140,556 American Indian veterans have served.  Some 28 Native Americans have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The Department of Defense employs 3,772 Native American civilians.  From 2006 to 2015, there has been a 65 percent increase in the numbers of female Native Americans and a 36 percent increase in Native American officers who have sworn to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. 

Of those Native Americans who have served, two names bear mentioning.  Joseph Medicine Crow, of the Montana Apsaalooke (Crow) Indian reservation, was the first of his people to attend college and obtain a graduate degree.  When the U.S. entered World War II, Joe Medicine Crow joined the Army as a member of the 103rd Infantry Division and, drawing upon the teachings of his grandfathers and the warrior ethos of his people, earned the both the Bronze Star and the French Legion of Honor.  Medicine Crow was the last of his people to be named War Chief.  On Aug. 12, 2009, Joe Medicine Crow received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. 

Tinker Air Force Base is named in honor of Maj. Gen. Clarence Leonard Tinker, commander of the Seventh Air Force. He was the highest ranking Native American officer in his day and the first to have ever achieved that rank.  Growing up in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Tinker worked in the print shop of his father’s newspaper, the Wah-Sha-She News. 

Tinker graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in 1908 and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1912.  Tinker began flying in 1919 and transferred to the Army Air Service in 1922.  After completing his studies at the Army Command and Staff College, in the same class as Dwight D. Eisenhower, he assumed command of the Air Service Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field. In June of 1924, Major General Tinker lead a force of LB-30 bombers against Japanese naval forces and became the first American General to be killed in WWII.  Gen. Hap Arnold re-named Oklahoma City Air Depot to Tinker Field on October 14, 1942. 

Crow and Tinker are but two names among the thousands of other Native Americans who answered the call to service.  We honor Native Americans in November and recognize that their contributions as civic leaders, civil servants, and as members of our Armed Forces, strengthen our nation.  Our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, entreats all citizens to recognize the strength of unity.  In serving our nation with honor and dignity, Native American service members honor the many nations of America’s First People.