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8 Nov 2022

Honoring Our Indigenous American Service Members

In addition to being a time we give thanks for family, friends, and freedom, November is also Native American Heritage Month. It’s a month of celebration and recognition of our country’s Indigenous peoples, especially those Indigenous Service members often left out of the narrative.

Indigenous Americans Serving in the U.S. Military

Indigenous Service members and Veterans report serving in the U.S. Military for a variety of reasons, such as financial or educational reasons, loyalty to the United States, or because serving aligns with their values (Huyser et al., 2021). According to a special report on American Indians' contribution to our Armed Forces (Holiday et al, 2006), Indigenous Service members have been an integral part of military service for the past 200 years – in fact, they’ve served in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War. About 12,000 Indigenous Service members served during WWI, and 14 Indigenous women served in the Army Nurse Corps during the same time. These numbers increased substantially during WWII, when more than 44,000 Indigenous people were drafted or enlisted (Holiday et al., 2006).

Perhaps the best-known role of Indigenous Service members was the WWII-era Navajo Code Talkers. These were highly trained Indigenous Service members who used their native language to create an encrypted line of communication (CIA, 2008; DeSimone, 2021). The Navajo Code Talkers’ efforts were not the first use of Indigenous languages for military codes, but they were the first use of Navajo. Because other militaries began studying North American Indigenous languages after WWI, the Marine Corps chose Navajo due to its complexity and obscurity outside the Navajo tribe. The Navajo Code Talkers’ contributions did not become widely recognized until after the operation was declassified in 1968. In 1982, President Reagan declared August 14th “Navajo Code Talkers Day.”

Quick Facts about Indigenous Service Members and Veterans

Indigenous Service members and Veterans have had a profound effect on our military and our country, so it’s important to take the time to learn more about them and their specific needs.

  • Indigenous Service members serve at a higher rate than any other demographic (Huyser et al., 2021; VA, 2020).
  • Indigenous Service members receive the lowest income amongst retired Service members/Veterans (VA, 2020).
  • Indigenous Veterans are at a higher risk of having suicidal thoughts than White Veterans (Gross et al., 2022).

Although these findings may be surprising, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military researchers continue to study the unique barriers and experiences of Indigenous Service members. For example, Huyser and colleagues (2021) conducted a study to investigate the persistent disadvantages Indigenous Veterans experience following their service. They found that:

  • Indigenous Veterans were more likely to need additional support completing daily activities (e.g., eating, getting out of bed) than their White Veteran counterparts;
  • Indigenous Veterans were more likely to have fair or poor health than their White Veteran counterparts (14% versus 8%);
  • 61% of the Indigenous Veterans sampled had never used their VA services.
Serving Those Who Serve

Given this information, it’s important that we find ways to recognize and support our Indigenous Service members and Veterans. Below are recommendations for providing support and uplifting these Service members, no matter your role in their lives.

Helping Professionals

  • Request training from tribal representatives to support developing an inclusive and understanding environment, one that can provide the best treatment and create culturally informed treatment plans for Indigenous Veterans.
  • Review available resources for supporting work with Indigenous populations, such as the SAMHSA Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center, which guides tribal communities and organizations in applying culturally appropriate responses to topics like wellness and mental health.


Families/Community Members

  • Celebrate the accomplishments of Indigenous Service members and Veterans by engaging in traditions significant for the Service members.
  • Encourage Indigenous Service members and Veterans to use the services guaranteed to them (e.g., VA benefits) for their time serving in the U. S. Military.

Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Service members have served in the U.S. Military. It’s important to recognize their contributions to our country and its military successes and to understand their unique history. Continuing to recognize their service is one way to give thanks. How will you celebrate Indigenous Veterans and Service members this month?

Thank you to all Indigenous Service members and Veterans for your service!

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