Native Americans in WWI

The contributions of American Indians to the war effort helped win the war and, in 1924, citizenship for all Indigenous peoples in the U.S.


In April of 1917, when the U.S. officially joined the war, most American Indians were not citizens and thus not subject to the conscription law drafting men into military service. There was also long-standing hostility between Native Americans and the U.S. government due to the latter’s violent military policy against Indians in the 19th century which brought about the eradication of traditional tribal life and forced assimilation into American society. Despite this, approximately 12,000 Native Americans would ultimately serve in World War I, with the Onondaga and Oneida Nations formally declaring war against Germany.

Often prohibited or discouraged from speaking their tribal languages at home, American Indians used their languages during the war to securely send Allied messages without fear of the Germans translating them. The success of the Choctaw Telephone Squad or Choctaw “Code Talkers” would later influence the U.S. military’s decision to recruit Navajo and Comanche soldiers during World War II for the same purpose.

In France, nearly five percent of Native Americans soldiers were killed in combat, compared to around one percent for U.S. troops overall. Whether they chose or were ordered to be placed in especially dangerous positions, the hope was that, by proving their valor and skill on the battlefield, they could return to their ancestral homeland with full citizenship and dignity.

Back in the United States, Native Americans continued to actively support the war effort—though in some cases, unwillingly. While their communities purchased millions of dollars in war bonds and volunteered with the American Red Cross and other relief organizations, the loss of native lands increased as the U.S. government took land for cattle and agriculture industries to produce food during the war. Recognizing the contributions and sacrifices of the Native American communities during World War I, Congress granted citizenship to all Native veterans in 1919—and in 1924, to all American Indians.

Topic Resources

SUBJECTS: U.S. History, Government

GRADE LEVELS: 5-8, 9-12


Native Americans in World War I

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American Indians’ Service in World War I, 1920

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Native Americans in WWI

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Native Americans in World War I

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