Native veterans in South Dakota. Photo: Rep. Kristi Noem

Ivan Star Comes Out: Just where did the insult 'Uncle Tomahawk' come from?

What does it mean to be called an Uncle Tomahawk?

By Ivan Star Comes Out
Native Sun News Today Columnist

Upon returning from that unpopular Southeast Asian war in 1969, I was called some very vindictive names and spit on while still in uniform. Since then, I have always expected such behavior from non-natives, not natives. In fact, it was the immediate families and relatives who showed any respect for approximately 276 returning Oglala Lakota veterans.

Personally, my friends and the 58,000-plus young men Killed In Action are imbedded permanently in my soul. Then there are the nine homeland Lakota men who lost their lives in Vietnam. We served despite the fact that the government and military did not tell us we were fighting a corporate war. Instead they said we were defending democracy and freedom. Anyway, we did not run like so many non-natives did.

Anyway, in the violence-ridden days following the 71-day takeover at Wounded Knee, I was once called “Apple” by a local English-only, culturally handicapped, American Indian Movement sympathizer. This name was used to mean that I supported the cause only on the outside (red) but that I was anti-cause (white) on the inside. I was also called “goon” by the same group.

Recently, in the midst of the turmoil of poverty, alcohol/drug trafficking, and government corruption on the Pine Ridge, I heard the moniker “Uncle Tomahawk.” I ignored it at first until I learned what it meant. The name was directed at Indian veterans. I have been called many names, but never this. I am inclined to think that this divisive name came out of a personal agenda or cause.

Ivan F. Star Comes Out. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

Anyway, I deciphered the word “tomahawk.” Its predecessor was a general purpose tool (stone hatchet) used by Indians. The 17th century Royal Navy used a metal version and adapted the name from the Algonquian language. It was used as a boarding axe on fighting ships and the colonists used them as a trade-item for food and other needs. Thus “tomahawk” is known today as a close-quarter combat weapon.

“Uncle Tom” is the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The term “Uncle Tom” is now used as a derogatory moniker for an exceedingly subservient person, particularly when that person is aware of their own lower-class status based on race. In other words, “Uncle Tom” refers to a black man considered to be excessively obedient or servile.

Thus, “Uncle Tomahawk” refers to a “Native American who emulates or adopts the behavior of the mainstream culture, a servile Native American (Dictionary of American Slang, 1970). A North American Indian who is considered to be excessively obedient to or cooperative with the white establishment (Oxford).

This name is now applied to Indian veterans of the United States military and clearly implies that we are all defectors or traitors to our own heritage. Anyway, Lakota language is my first language and I continually struggle to recover my culture and cope every day with my personal war trauma and “that’s all I got to say about that” (Forest Gump, 1994).

WWI Indian veterans hold the lofty status of regaining our congressionally outlawed cultural customs. One old WWI song speaks of this, “I defended the flag, so they gave me back my songs.” In the wake of this event, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom act of 1978.

I realize war is not the best thing to keep in mind but there relatives who are veterans of the Korean War (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1965-1975) and now the Gulf War (1991-present) still walking amongst us. I’m not sure about WWII veterans today but all of them will never be forgotten as long as the families are present. These facts are not going to change any time soon.

The Korean War (1950-1953) took more than 36,900 lives, 103,284 wounded or missing and 7,747 soldiers are still classified as Missing in Action. Many suffered hypothermia and frostbite from the freezing combat conditions. This was the war where jet aircraft and helicopters were used. The war has been called the “Forgotten War.”

Nine hundred thousand soldiers served in Vietnam. 58,000-plus were Killed in Action with 303,704 Wounded in Action. 2,500 are still classified as Missing in Action. 32,000 natives served in Vietnam. The majority of these men volunteered and at least 50% saw actual combat. 276 young Oglala Lakota entered the war in Vietnam (1965-1975), of which nine were killed in action.


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Ivan F. Star Comes Out can be reached at P.O. Box 147, Oglala, South Dakota, 57764; via phone at 605-867-2448 or via email at

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

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