“Warriors in Khaki: Indian Doughboys in the Great War” was the featured presentation to a packed room at the library during the Platte County Historical Society’s meeting Jan. 31.
Doug Cubbison, curator for the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum in Casper, showed slides as he discussed the service of Native Americans from Wyoming during World War I. He said the museum’s “Warriors in Khaki” exhibit was inspired by a quote from the book “Americans at the Front” by F.A. McKenzie.
“This guy saw Wyoming Indians on the front line,” Cubbison said.
Cubbison remarked that in 1917, when the United States entered World War I, it was not easy for the military to trust Native Americans since their last clash had just happened in December 1890 at Wounded Knee.
“That was as close to them as the first Gulf War is to us,” Cubbison said. “It’s not that long ago.”
However, Maj. Gen. Hugh Scott, who was chief of staff of the U.S. Army in 1917, and Army Gen. John Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in Europe at the time, were both familiar with Native American soldiers and impressed by their skills. Both men thought Indians made fine non-commissioned officers.
Cubbison said although there had been Native Americans in the U.S. Army since the Civil War, such as the Army’s Indian scouts, most were not formal soldiers but more like contract workers.
In the 1890s Hugh Scott organized Troop L of the 7th Cavalry, comprising all Native Americans, which Cubbison said became the best unit in the U.S. Cavalry. After 10 years, the U.S. government disbanded Troop L. Cubbison said Pershing had also had Native Americans under his command.
Cubbison discussed the Rodman Wanamaker Expedition of Citizenship, which began June 17, 1913, and was meant to demonstrate Indian patriotism — even though Native Americans were not legally U.S. citizens at the time, but citizens of their respective Indian nations.
Cubbison explained Wanamaker’s father was the founder of the first department store in the nation, and his family very wealthy. As a child in Pennsylvania, Wanamaker enjoyed Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows. He grew up to fund trips to the West to see the Indians before their way of life vanished. Wanamaker hired Joseph Dixon, who Cubbison described as a “shady character … sometimes a minister.” Dixon convinced Wanamaker he knew all about the Indians.
Once they start making their trips to the West, however, Dixon was appalled at the conditions he saw on reservations. Cubbison said Dixon became increasingly strident in his criticism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Expedition of Citizenship toured several Indian nations and held a ceremony at each one, visiting Wind River on Oct. 11, 1913. The ceremony stressed that Indians were U.S. citizens — although they weren’t — and featured the gift of a flag and Indian leaders signing proclamations of their patriotism.
“Those proclamations were turned over to the BIA,” Cubbison said. “We believe the BIA destroyed all those proclamations.”
Cubbison theorized the BIA destroyed the Expedition of Citizenship’s documents after “Dixon calls ’em out” regarding the appalling conditions on reservations.
In April 1917 when the U.S. declared war, Scott and Pershing both wanted Indian soldiers on the Mexican border to free up soldiers for the front. Others didn’t know if Indians could be trusted. Cubbison Scott and Pershing ended the argument when they said “we need ’em” and then proceeded to integrate Native American soldiers into the U.S. Army.
“This is a huge paradigm shift in our culture,” Cubbison said. “This was the first time the Army incorporated non-whites into the Army — mainly because of Hugh Scott.”
One complication at the time was the draft, which was still law at the time. Cubbison said the federal government did “what it often does,” which was put the burden on counties, telling the counties to figure out whether they should draft Native Americans or not. Some counties did, some didn’t, and the U.S. ended up with about 12,500 active-duty Native American servicemen — mostly in the Army, but some in the Navy.
Cubbison said Native Americans made top-notch soldiers as Scott and Pershing had predicted.
“Also, their languages came in handy,” he said, noting the first code talkers were some Choctaw Indians. For instance, the Choctaw had no word for “machine gun,” so they would come up with their own words for it and thus make up their own code.
Cubbison noted Germans were also terrified of Native Americans, having received much of their information from pulp fiction. American commanders would often advertise that they had Native Americans among them, convincing terrified Germans that all manner of horror and scalpings were in store.
Wyoming Indian Cpl. Thomas Saunders, for instance, was able to capture 63 Germans with the assistance of just one other soldier after the men had cut their way through barbed wire to a village. Saunders received the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts.
Cubbison said Saunders was the most highly decorated Wyoming soldier in World War I. Saunders was also one of the six pall bearers for the Unknown Soldier. Saunders was discharged from the service in 1939, then worked for the Corps of Engineers during World War II.
Cubbison lamented that historians have not had much success so far in tracing Wyoming Indians in the military — in fact, they have only four names.
In addition to Saunders, Wyoming Native Americans in World War I include Roy Shade Large, who is buried in Wheatland Cemetery; Pvt. Arthur B. Ried, 13th Field Artillery, 4th Division, a Navajo who enlisted in Sheridan; and Pvt. John Washakie, a grandson of Chief Washakie, born July 19, 1899, at Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
“We need to do more research,” Cubbison said. “I’m sure there are more than four men from this state.”
He expressed envy at the great book of Native American doughboys that North Dakota has compiled.
Cubbison’s presentation concluded with two acts of Congress: “an act granting citizenship to certain Indians” in 1919, which granted citizenship to all Native American veterans of World War I, and the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, aka the Snyder Act, which granted full U.S. citizenship to all the indigenous peoples of the U.S.
“Indian suffrage happened because of people like Corporal Saunders,” Cubbison said.