Native Americans in the Military

Submitted by

Veterans & Family Services Office


Serving with distinction in every major U.S. conflict for over 200 years, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives serve at 5 times the national average of any population in the U.S. Approximately 1.4 percent of the U.S.


population is Native with approximately 1.7 percent of the military being Native. Of the 1.7 percent serving, Native American and Alaskan females comprise nearly 20 percent of this population.


Approximately 12,500 Native Americans enlisted or were drafted into WWI. About two-thirds of them served in the infantry, but at a high cost. Roughly five percent of these combat soldiers were killed. About 10,000 Native women joined the Red Cross to assist with the war efforts. Choctaw and other Natives transmitted codes in their native languages by telephone to win some of the battles that ended the war.


After the attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII, an estimated 44,000 of the total 350,000 Native and Native Alaskan population went on active duty including about 800 women. As a population, they earned 71 Air Medals. 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze stars and 5 Medals of Honor.


Approximately 10,000 served during the Korean War.  Another 42,000 served during Vietnam of which 90 percent were volunteers.


When asked about why so many Native Americans join the military, Marine Code Talker Peter McDonald said, “There was exploitation, but our desire to maintain what belongs to us and protect our families is part of our desire to volunteer and protect our land.”


In total, 27 American Indians have been awarded the Medal of Honor which is the Nation’s highest military honor.


Code Talkers

The Code Talkers were comprised of 14 different tribes. The first Code Talkers were used during WWI using tribal languages that the German’s could not decipher.  Most of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers were from the State of Arizona.



The Army’s 45th Infantry Division, known as the Thunderbirds for their distinctive insignia, became one of America’s most acclaimed World War II combat units. American Indians made up about one-fifth of the 45th Infantry Division including three who received the Medal of Honor: Jack Montgomery (Cherokee, 1917-2002), Van T Barfoot (Choctaw, 1919-2012) and Ernest Childers (Muscogee Nation, 1918-2005 and the first Native American to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII). General George Patton said to the Thunderbirds, “You are one of the best, if not the best, divisions in the history of American arms.”