"Native Warriors in Battle" by Matthew Panana (Jemez Pueblo) serves as a tribute to Native warriors and Native veterans at the the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

From warrior to soldier: A 200 year journey

Native Sun News Today Contributing Editor

RAPID CITY— Before Europeans ever arrived in North America, wars were fought between tribes, and although some were very bloody, none matched the protracted standards set by European conflict.

In many notable cases, conflict resolutions were devised to avoid the carnage of actual war. These were generally contests of skill, stickball and lacrosse, and although extremely violent by today’s standards of sport, the casualties were mild compared to what would have happened had tribes taken up the war club against each other.

Stickball was called “the Little Brother of War” by the Choctaw, because the big brother, actual war, wasn’t something any tribe wanted to engage in unless absolutely unavoidable. The concept of war, and the role of the warrior, are to this day, fundamentally misunderstood, not only by European mentalities, but by modern tribal perspectives.

Make no mistake, tribes were not pacifists. If actual conflict occurred, the outcome was horrifyingly brutal. But the warriors who fought in those conflicts arrived there by a different route than the soldiers of any modern army or historical European army.

Sitting Bull described the Lakota perspective: “For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”

Photo by Kevin Abourezk

From the very beginning, the biggest conflict was not between the tribes and the European invaders, it was between competing factions of Europeans. The conflict in North America, more often than not, was a spillover of a deeper, more desperate conflict back in Europe. In the first notable case of this, the Dutch and the French battled for fur trading hegemony in the Atlantic northeast at the start of the 17th Century.

The Dutch armed their Iroquois allies with muskets, and asked nothing in return but friendship. The French would not thus arm their allies, among them the Iroquoian tribe, the Wyandot, or Huron as they are more popularly known, unless they first swore fealty to the Church. As a result, the musket laden Iroquois, at that time a very organized and sophisticated society, attacked their hated enemy, the Huron, and in March of 1649 burned 15 of their villages and dispersed the survivors into unforgiving wilderness. Over the course of that decade, about 70 percent of the Huron died from disease, harsh conditions or war.

This was a type of war the tribes had not visited upon one another before the coming of the Europeans. But with such low risk and high reward, the Iroquois could not resist attacking their musket bereft enemies Although this conflict began a change in how tribes conducted warfare, it did not as yet alter the perception of the warrior as head of household, as protector and servant of the vulnerable.

This fundamental rewiring of how tribes viewed the warrior would take a drastic turn a century later, during the French and Indian War. In 1755, British General Braddock suffered a convincing defeat, which cost him his life, and the road to the conquest of Ohio and Pennsylvania lay open. But the French could not get their tribal allies to continue the pursuit. The tribes reasoned they had kept their word and helped their French allies, and now they took the spoils promised and headed back home.

For tribes, this decade long European conflict was just a gigantic war party, where they risked what they would, where and when they felt it worth risking, and the agenda and objectives of European strategists and statesmen meant nothing to them. But in these alliances, in this style of conflict, the concept of warrior was fundamentally and inexorably altered in the minds of the participating tribes.

The day would soon arrive when the warrior became the soldier. Twenty years later, in 1778, George Washington said, “I think they [Indians] can be made of excellent use, as scouts and light troops.”

Over the centuries the idea of who a warrior is and who a soldier is has conflicted and converged until today those that serve are a combination of the noblest aspects of both realities. One award signifies service above and beyond the call of duty over any other, the Medal of Honor, awarded by the President on behalf of the Congress.

Almost 3,500 people have won this award. Twenty-nine Indians have officially been awarded the Medal of Honor by the US Military, although the list has thirty:

1-Co-Rux-Te-Chod (Pani) 1869; 2-Chiquito (White Mountain Apache) 1871; 3-Jim (white Mountain Apache 1871; 4-Machol (Apache) 1872; 5-Nannasaddi (White Mountain Apache) 1872; 6-Nantaje (White Mountain Apache) 1872; 7-William Alchesay (White Mountain Apache) 1872; 8-Blanquet (Apache) 1872; 9-Elsatsoosu (Apache) 1872; 10-Kelsay (White Mountain Apache) 1872; 11-Kosoba (White Mountain Apache) 1872; 12-Adam Paine (Seminole) 1874; 13-Pompey Factor (Seminole) 1875; 14-Isaac Payne (Seminole) 1875; 15-John Ward (Seminole) 1875; 16-Rowdy (Apache) 1890; 17-Pappy Boyington (Sioux) 1943; 18-Ernest Childers (Muscogee) 1943; 19-Jack C. Montgomery (Cherokee) 1944; 20-Van T. Barfoot (Choctaw) 1944; 21-Roy W. Harmon (?) 1944; 22-Ernest E. Evans (Cherokee/Muscogee) 1944; 23-John N. Reese, Jr. (?) 1945; 24-Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr. (Ho-Chunk) 1950; 25-Raymond Harvey (Chickasaw) 1951; 26-Tony K. Burris (Choctaw) 1951; 27Woodrow W. Keeble (Sioux) 1951; 28-Charles George (Cherokee) 1952; 29-James E. Williams (Cherokee) 1966; 30-Michael E. Thornton (Cherokee) 1972.

Three gave their lives, Ernest Evans, Tony Burris, and Charles George, and received the Medal of Honor posthumously.


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Contact James Giago Davies at skindiesel@msn.com

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