Plans to honor WWI Native veterans

Submitted Photo Private 1st Class John Elk of Standing Rock Reservation in 1919 served in Company D, 139th Infantry Regiment (35th Division), with several other Native servicemen from tribes in North Dakota. Elk has been posthumously recognized as a code-talker in World War I. His commanding officer said he was an “exceptionally good scout, was very cool and calm but very quiet.” From “Warriors in Khaki,” by Michael and Ann Knudson. Photo from British National Archives.

BISMARCK – Even before most Native Americans had citizenship rights, thousands of men from tribes across the country showed their patriotism by volunteering for the military and fighting in World War I.

Now, as the nation solemnly marks the World War I Centennial, United Tribes Technical College at Bismarck is planning to honor Native American servicemen from North Dakota tribes who served and sacrificed. The honoring will be held on Sept. 10 during the 2017 UTTC International Powwow at the college in Bismarck.

“One hundred years ago men from our tribes willingly chose to enter the military,” said Leander R. McDonald, UTTC president, one of the planners of a World War I memorial on the college campus. “They didn’t have to do that. It was prior to the time when all Native people were granted U. S. citizenship. But they stepped-up. And we owe it to them to remember.”

N.D. Indian recruits

Native veterans are highly respected and revered throughout Indian Country. An estimated 10,000 American Indians served in the Army in World War I and two,000 in the Navy. Historians characterize their patriotism as remarkable despite having no reason to serve as most were not yet citizens.

In North Dakota, many were recruited in 1917 by Alfred B. Welch of Mandan, an officer in the North Dakota National Guard. Welch befriended Chief John Grass of Standing Rock and was adopted by him into the tribe. He commanded a company of the Guard in France during the war and looked after the wellbeing of Native servicemen.

“I had, in every instance under my observation, found them to be soldiers of great courage, initiative and intelligence,” wrote Welch about the loyalty and behavior of North Dakota Indians who made it good in the great war. “[they were] always volunteers for the most dangerous missions; brave to the point of recklessness; and had proven themselves to be soldiers of the highest type.”

Code Talkers

In World War I Native servicemen performed duties in all military capacities. But one assignment offered a singular purpose not available to others. Those who became messengers and telephone operators transmitted information in Native languages and dialects. Along with men from a handful of other tribes, servicemen speaking Lakota were among the first Native “Code Talkers” in the military.

Only in recent years have Lakota Code Talkers been posthumously recognized for what they did in World War I, often to the surprise of descendants who knew little of the nature of their service. That’s because they remained faithful to their oath of silence, preserving the effectiveness of that field tactic for use later during World War II.

Memorial plans

UTTC plans to erect a memorial that will bear the names of World War I era Native American servicemen. Listed will be those who were enrolled members of the tribal nations in North Dakota that govern the college: Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation; Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate; Spirit Lake Tribe; Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Assembling an accurate list after 100 years has taken cooperation and communication.

Authors Ann G. and Michael J. Knudson of Bismarck provided a solid start by sharing the list of men whose service records are described in their 2012 book “Warriors in Khaki,Private 1st Class John Elk (Standing Rock), in 1919 serving in Company D, 139th Infantry Regiment (35th Division), with several other Native servicemen from tribes in North Dakota. Elk has been posthumously recognized as a code-talker in WWI. His commanding officer said he was an “exceptionally good scout, was very cool and calm but very quiet.” From “Warriors in Khaki,” by Michael and Ann Knudson. Photo – British National Archives Native American doughboys from North Dakota,” Robertson Publishing. During three years of research, the Knudsons tapped military and census records, newspaper stories, correspondence, family recollections and official reports.

The college also consulted with tribal historians, tribal leaders and veterans who serve as Tribal Veterans’ service officers.

Verifying the names of WWI Native servicemembers

BISMARCK – United Tribes Technical College at Bismarck seeks the public’s help in verifying the names of about 356 Native servicemembers who were in World War I.

The list is organized by tribe and carries the names of all enrolled members who are believed to have served in the era from 1913 to 1920. In the case of Standing Rock and Sisseton-Wahpeton, where each tribe’s boundary crosses two states, included are men whose homes were in South Dakota.

In reviewing the list, relatives, descendants and other interested parties are asked to look for misspellings, preferred name usage (such as Joseph rather than Joe), and the possible omission of names.

Some may also wish to share details known of World War I service, including honors or medals received and photographs.

UTTC plans an honoring for World War I Native servicemen and a Veterans Dance Special during the 2017 United Tribes Technical College International Powwow on Sunday, Sept. 10 at the college in Bismarck.

The college will gather financial support over the next year for the permanent memorial, listing all the names. It will be dedicated during the college’s annual powwow in 2018.

To provide information, contact United Tribes Technical College, Office of Public Information, 3315 University Drive, Bismarck, ND, 58504, 701-255-3285 x 1386, opi@uttc.edu.

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