Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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Recruiting Poster "American Traditions U.S. Navy"

Recruiting Poster "American Traditions U.S. Navy" by Timothy Gaussiran. (NH 94604-KN)

Contributions of American Indians to the U.S. Navy: Serving the United States Since its Birth

Since 1776, when General George Washington began enlisting American Indians for his Army, Navy, and Marines, American Indians have contributed significantly to the defense of our nation. During the Civil War, 20,000 American Indians served with Union forces both at sea and on the land. During World War I, although ineligible for the draft, 15,000 American Indians volunteered to fight in the Great War. Although American Indians have been an integral part of our country long before its birth, American Indian veterans weren’t awarded citizenship and voting rights until 1919. In 1924, voting rights were extended to all American Indians after the Snyder Act was passed. In World War II, 44,000 fought with distinction, including 1,910 in the Navy and 874 in the Marines. For the Navy, two Oklahoma Cherokees distinguished themselves. Rear Admiral Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark commanded aircraft carriers and later a task force. Commander Ernest E. Evans was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle off Samar, Philippines.  

Between 10,000 and 15,000 American Indians fought in the Korean War and more than 42,000 during Vietnam. In 1966, South Carolina Cherokee Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class James E. Williams, while serving at South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, killed an unknown number of enemy forces while destroying 65 vessels and disrupting an enemy logistic operation. Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the three-hour battle against Viet Cong guerrillas with the two riverine patrol boats he commanded.  

In the early 1970s, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt sought to reduce racism and sexism in both the Navy and Marine Corps with Z-Gram #66 (Equal Opportunity) which benefited American Indians immensely. Rear Admiral Michael L. Holmes and Commander John B. Herrington are notable examples of the new opportunities for American Indians as a result of Zumwalt’s Z-Gram. Holmes served 32 years as a naval aviator, and Herrington flew for the Navy and later NASA, becoming the first enrolled member of an American Indian tribe to fly in space.

As of March 2012, active duty American Indian military members numbered 22,248, with over half, 13,511, in the Navy. More than 160,000 American Indians call themselves veterans today. Approximately, 15,000 active duty, reserve, and civilian members of the Navy’s total force declare themselves American Indian or Alaska native. In the twenty-first century the Navy’s leadership remains strongly committed to diversity.


Family Drum

Jacksonville, FL (Nov. 22, 2006) - USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) Command Master Chief Carl L. Dassance pounds on a ceremonial drum during a Native American and Alaskan Heritage celebration. Dassance, who belongs to the Ojibwa tribe, is also a member of the Native American organization, Family Drum, which acknowledges their heritage by playing their ceremonial drum weekly to honor Native Americans who serve in the Armed Forces. U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Nathan L. Anderson. 061121-N-6159N-001


Selected Imagery from NHHC's Collection

Photo #: NH 63499  LCdr. Ernest E. Evans, USN
LCdr. Ernest E. Evans, USN, at the commissioning ceremonies of USS Johnston (DD-557), Seattle, Washington, 27 October 1943

USS S-48 (SS-159) 1922-1944.
An Indian princess as sponsor, five other members of the Mohican tribe, and a bottle of real champagne, were the outstanding features of the launching of the Submarine S-48.

US Navy seaman with native American
US Navy seaman with native American

Selected Artwork from NHHC's Collection

Portrait of a man, in profile with a topknot
Engraving; Based on Work by Alfred T. Agate; C. 1840; Dimensions Unknown

Portrait of a Native American holding a rifle
Drawing, Pencil on Paper; by Alfred T. Agate; C. 1840; Unframed Dimensions 4H X 3W

Massacre of Wyoming, 3-4 July 1778
The massacre of Wyoming took place on the 3rd and 4th of July 1778 in the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania.

Published: Tue Jul 20 13:23:40 EDT 2021