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.
Selected Imagery from NHHC's Collection
Selected Artwork from NHHC's Collection