- Between CulturesSioux Warriors and the Vietnam War
American Indians, Dakota Sioux, Lakota Sioux, racism
Like all the twentieth-century wars in which the United States was involved, American troops in the Vietnam War came from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, including rich, poor, and middle class, African American, Mexican American, and Native American. Each of these groups served in disproportionate numbers compared to their general population statistics in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Nonetheless, Vietnam proved to be a vastly different war. Native Americans were among those minority and working-class soldiers who served in numbers disproportionate to the total population of the nation. Of the 2.5 million men and women who served during Vietnam, 42,000 were Native American.1 In particular, the Lakota and Dakota Sioux of the northern Great Plains used the Vietnam War to emulate traditional expectations established by previous generations of Sioux warriors and veterans. As will be examined, these expectations developed not only from earlier generations’ pre-and postcontact defensive and survival measures but also from latter generations that served in American wars such as World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
According to historian Tom Holm, “During the Vietnam War the total Indian population of the United States was less than one million persons. American Indians thus made up nearly 1.4 percent of all troops sent to Southeast Asia, while Indians in general never constituted more than 0.6 percent of the total population . . . in the same time period.”2 The numbers can be compared to African Americans, who “between 1965 and 1970 . . . constituted slightly over 11 percent of the draft eligible population . . . but represented 14.3 percent of all draftees.”3 Although Native American [End Page 357] numbers look minimal when compared to African American soldiers, the 0.6 percent represented the entire United States American Indian population while the 11 percent represented only draft-eligible African Americans.4
When compared to World Wars I and II, American expectations, obligations, and service rates differed in Vietnam. As historian James Westheider acknowledged, “Unlike Germany and Japan in World War II and, to a lesser degree, Germany in the First World War, North Vietnam and the Vietcong in South Vietnam did not pose a direct threat to the United States.”5 Historian and author Christian Appy verified that World War II had been a universal experience among all class, race, and gender categories. An estimated 12 million men served in World War II compared to 2.5 million in Vietnam, which constituted less than 10 percent of the male draft-eligible population.6 In other words, World Wars I and II directly threatened the country and required all American citizens to lay aside their differences and come together.
Vietnam service members still continued to support America, but the controversy of the war often led many service members, especially ethnic minorities, to question the reasons for the war. African Americans were one such group. Westheider summed up previous African American military service as “an opportunity to prove their patriotism, their worth as citizens and soldiers, and as a vehicle for social and economic advancement.”7 Although many of the reasons for serving appeared similar between the African American and Native American communities, many Native Americans viewed patriotism differently.
Native American historical studies have often focused on the dominant battles and figures. For example, dozens of books have been written about the Battle of Little Big-horn or about prominent Native American leaders such as Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse.8 However, only a few studies on Native American involvement in World Wars I and II have been published, including Thomas A. Britten’s American Indians in World War I: At Home and at War (1997); Kenneth William Townsend’s World War II and the American Indian (2000); Jerè Bishop Franco’s Crossing the Pond: The Native American Effort in World War II (1999); and Alison R. Bernstein’s American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (1997).
In addition, a small number of historical biographies have been produced, including Code...