Traditions of Service

Older black and white photo of Native Americans dressed in US military apparel, lined up together on a grassy field.

November is National American Indian Heritage Month. Nationwide, there are 372 treaties and 13 supplements ratified between Native Americans nations and the US, which highlight the unique government-to-government relationship that has existed for centuries.

In 1915, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a member of the Seneca Nation and director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, NY, advocated to set aside a day for the “First Americans.” Also in 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association formally approved a plan concerning American Indian Day. We look back on these single days as the laying the groundwork for the heritage month of today. A number of presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Barack Obama have made proclamations regarding Native American heritage celebrations. And in 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month.

Celebrations and awareness

This month is an opportunity to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Islands, Alaska, and the mainland US. We also acknowledge their important contributions to our nation and the world. For example, Native Americans brewed tea from willow trees to alleviate pain, which produced salicylic acid in the body, the ingredient for aspirin. The Haudenosaunee (the Six Nations or Iroquois) Great Law of Peace is the oldest living democracy on earth. It has been called, “in both principle and form,” the model for the US Constitution. It is also an occasion to be intentional about learning, discussing and engaging with Indigenous peoples and their nations. Finally, it is also a time to bring awareness to the atrocities, challenges, and betrayals that Indigenous people have experienced, and continue to experience, at the hands of those who occupy their lands.

At Michigan Tech, we acknowledge that our University is built upon the lands of the Anishinaabeg Ojibwa and that it is incumbent upon us to cultivate a relationship with our neighbors that honors their history and traditions.

A history of military service

Additionally, Native American Heritage Month coincides with Military Family Appreciation Month. This connection is strengthened by the enduring record of Native Americans in the military. Native Americans have served in or with the US military since colonial times. The Haudenosaunee vigorously supported the British against the French and their native allies in the Seven Years’ War. The Haudenosaunee continued to support the British during the American Revolution, which resulted in the tragic march of General John Sullivan upon the orders of George Washington to bring about “total destruction and devastation of their settlements” and “to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.” Sullivan carried out his mission to its fullest. And many Haudenosaunee died in the bitter winter that followed.

Yet, Native American support for the military continued throughout American history. Ely Samuel Parker of the Seneca Nation was commissioned a lieutenant colonel during the Civil War, where he served as adjutant and secretary to General Grant. He is known for writing the final draft of the Confederate army surrender terms. Parker later rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general and eventually became the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Chester Nez was an American veteran of World War II. He was the last surviving original Navajo Code Talker who served in the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II. Along with 28 Navajo Nation members, Nez helped create a code based on the complex, unwritten Navajo language. The code primarily used word association by assigning a Navajo word to key phrases and military tactics. The Code Talkers participated in every major Marine operation in the Pacific and were critical to the victory at Iwo Jima and other battles in the Pacific. At the end of the war, the Navajo Code remained unbroken. On July 26, 2001, Nez was one of the five living Code Talkers who received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush.

Deep patriotism

Native American military service might seem paradoxical. But Kevin Grover of the Pawnee Nation and director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian says Native Americans believe that “this land is still ours” and have “a deep patriotism, a belief that, despite all that has happened, the United States can be better, and we want to be part of that.”

May we all partake of this attitude of healing and progress. We can all take steps to make our nation more equitable and inclusive for everyone. Visit the National Museum of the American Indian’s new online exhibition Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces. Check out the Institute for Policy, Ethics, and Culture page on Western and Indigenous Sciences and works by Indigenous authors at the Van Pelt and Opie Library.

The 133rd. Motor Transport Company. Camp Mitchell, South Dakota.,1929 [Photographs and other Graphic Materials]; Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75; [online version available through the National Archives Catalog (National Archives Identifier 285696) at; November 3, 2021].