Native American Servicewomen: Yesterday and Today

Some of the very first accounts of Native American women in the military include the stories of Sacajewa, a Shosone woman who accompanied Army Captains Lewis and Clark in the early 19th century. Historians have also rediscovered the story of Tyonajanegean, an Oneida woman who fought alongside her husband, an Army officer, during the Battle of Oriskany. Since then, almost 20 percent of all Native American service members are women. Throughout the month of November, we connect you to the inspiring stories of women who answered the call to serve.

Grace Thorpe was the youngest child of American football player and Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe. She was of Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Menominee heritage and a direct descendent of Sac and Fox Chief Black Hawk. In 1943, Thorpe enlisted in the military and joined the Women’s Army Corps. After training, she was elevated to the rank of corporal. Thorpe served as a recruiter until she was assigned to the New Guinea campaign for which she was awarded the Bronze Star. After her military career, she co-founded the National Indian Women’s Action Corps, a group that focused on empowering Native American women and strengthening indigenous family units. Later, Thorpe attended law school and went on to become a tribal district court judge. In 1999, she received a Nuclear-Free Future Award for her opposition to storing toxic waste on indigenous lands.

“Grace Thorpe Joins WAACS.” Military Career and Life in Japan, 1943-1946, Grace F. Thorpe Collection, National Museum of the American Indian

U.S. Army Private Lori Piestewa was a member of the Hopi tribe, who primarily reside in northeastern Arizona. She was the first woman to die on the front lines in Iraq and the first Native American woman to die serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Lori’s memory is kept alive through her community with an honorary mountain, an education initiative for Hopi children and an annual motorcycle ride for fallen soldiers.

Mitchelene BigMan of the Crow tribe enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1986. She served as a sergeant first class, working as a mechanic in Operation Iraqi Freedom with two deployments in Balad. She is the founder of Native American Women Warriors, a color guard of female Native American Veterans. Their mission is to bring attention to and honor the contributions of Native American women’s military service.

Join us all month as we honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s Native American service members.

Lori Piestewa-1st American Indian female GI to die in combat. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army
Sgt. 1st Class Mitchelene Bigman from the 19th Support Center performs the Jingle dress dance during the Nov.19 Native American Indian Heritage event. Photo courtesy of DVIDS

Celebrating Native American Heritage Month

Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity for all of us to celebrate the rich and diverse culture, traditions, histories and important contributions of Native Americans who have served in our military since the American Revolution. Today, there are more than 190,000 Native American military Veterans. Since 9/11, nearly 19 percent of Native Americans have served in the armed forces as many view military service as a continuation of the warrior’s role in Native cultures.

Of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, 32 Veterans of Native American heritage have been awarded our nation’s highest award for military valor in action. This month, we highlight two of their stories.

Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr., a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe, first served in combat with the U.S. Marine Raiders during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1948. After the Korean War began in June 1950, he was sent to Korea with the 19th Infantry, 24th Infantry Division, which was among American troops who fought the first battles of the war. Red Cloud was manning a forward observation post when he spotted an imminent surprise attack by Chinese forces. He single-handedly held off the Chinese forces despite being shot eight times. At one point, he ordered his men to tie him to a tree because he was too weak to stand by himself. His company found him the next morning, surrounded by dead Chinese troops. Red Cloud was credited with alerting his company to the ambush and saving them from being overrun. The Ho-Chunk tribe, known as Hoocągra or Winnebago, are Siouan-speaking Native American people who are today are enrolled in two federally recognized tribes, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

Army Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., Medal of Honor recipient. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army (Medal of Honor Monday: Army Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud Jr. > U.S. Department of Defense > Story)

Photo courtesy of The Congressional Medal of Honor Society (Michael Edwin Thornton | Vietnam War | U.S. Navy | Medal of Honor Recipient (cmohs.org)

Lieutenant Michael Edwin Thornton, a Cherokee from South Carolina, served in the U.S. Navy SEALS during the Vietnam War. On October 31, 1972, Thornton participated in a mission to capture prisoners and gather intelligence from the Cua Viet Base near the coast of Quang Tri Province, just south of the Demilitarized Zone. When his patrol reached land, they were caught in a fierce firefight. Upon learning that the senior advisor had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, Thornton returned through a hail of fire to his last position, quickly disposed of two enemy soldiers about to overrun the position and succeeded in removing the seriously wounded and unconscious senior Naval advisor to the water’s edge. He then inflated his lifejacket and towed the advisor for approximately two hours until picked up by support craft. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic acts in battle.

We invite you to join us all month long as we honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s Native American service members.

WEDS-SUN 10 A.M. - 5 P.M.
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