Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
The development of the rights of Native Americans from World War I to present day was the focus of Lt. Col. Fredrick McLeod’s remarks during the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth National American Indian Heritage Month observance Nov. 20 in Eisenhower Hall’s DePuy Auditorium.
To limit attendance because of COVID-19 precautions, the observance was streamed live on the CAC Facebook page.
McLeod, a tactics author in the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate, is one-eighth Maliseet, which is a tribe out of New Brunswick, Canada, with a band in Houlton, Maine, and Quebec.
“World War I and World War II … shaped two past, and, in some cases, current issues,” McLeod said.
McLeod said more than 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I, but it is not often mentioned in history books because they did so as volunteers because they were not U.S. citizens and therefore could not be drafted.
Most Native American soldiers worked as scouts, snipers or code talkers, he said.
“The first two jobs were the result of scientific racism, which tied perceived and stereotyped abilities to certain races,” McLeod said. “For example, it was assumed that Native Americans were skilled and quiet trackers. In reality, all it did was place Native American soldiers in much more dangerous situations than the average American soldier.”
McLeod said the Choctaw were the first tribe noted to do the job as code talkers, serving under Col. Alfred Wainwright Bloor of the 142nd Infantry Regiment.
“When speaking amongst each other, (the Choctaw) would use their native language. Colonel Bloor quickly realized that if he could not understand them, the Germans certainly would not be able to either,” McLeod said. “This was quite insightful for the time, as the often overlooked aspect of Native American languages is that they were not written down.”
The first successful use of code talking was in October 1918, when it was used to conceal the movement of allied units.
“The Germans’ complete surprise was evidence that they could not decipher the messages,” he said. “Soon, Choctaws were placed in each company, completely frustrating German wire tappers.”
In World War II, McLeod said code talkers were more common as an estimated 10 percent of the Native American population served. By 1942, 99 percent of eligible Native Americans signed up for the draft.
“Many were ready to overlook past historic resentments and disappointments because they sadly knew the importance of defending one’s own land,” McLeod said.
The Navajo, Cherokee and Commanche tribes were three of the 15 tribes noted to work as code talkers for both the Marine Corps and the Army.
“At the time, many people were surprised to see Navajo enlist in the numbers they did due to the harsh and bloody history with the U.S. Government. But, for many Native Americans, it was a way to get back to their warrior roots and history,” McLeod said. “The Navajo had a way of both honoring the past and securing the future.”
Throughout both wars, citizenship rights remained an issue. Laws were passed, including the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, giving Native Americans more opportunities, but full rights as citizens for Native Americans did not come until the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, McLeod said.
Since then, McLeod said, Native Americans have come a long way, noting the establishment of the Maine Native American Veterans Day on June 21, 2009, and the five Native American representatives who will be present when the 117th Congress convenes on Jan. 3, 2021.
“Progress has a tendency to scare people because it is uncomfortable. Progress is going to happen. It is necessary. It is hard. It is often ugly, and it forces us to look at ourselves and try to be better,” McLeod said. “With the economic, social and racial upheaval that 2020 has brought upon us, I believe we will see more progress for all marginalized groups in the near future.
“When we have the social, economic and racial turmoil like 2020 has brought us, we as a country have an opportunity to progress and change. With the world watching … our allies and adversaries alike are wondering how the U.S. is going to progress through these events,” he said. “Fortunately, most in the world know that if a country is going to work through these unprecedented challenges and arrive on the other side as united and stronger, it is the United States. We secure the future with progress, and when we enable progress, we honor the past by recognizing those who wanted, fought and sacrificed, sometimes everything, for the betterment of everyone.”