- Veterans’ Benefits and Indigenous Veterans of the Second World War in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States
“One day a notice came out of the first sergeant’s office with my name on it. It was my pass to go back to the states! After thirty-four months, five campaigns, and many battles, I was going home! I had made it, but my brother had not.”1 With these words, Hollis D. Stabler began his journey home and his transition from an Omaha soldier into a Native American veteran. It is difficult to imagine the immensity or complexity of the feelings that Second World War Indigenous service personnel experienced, after months or even years away in military services, in anticipating and living through their homecoming, “most filled with jubilant anticipation, some plagued by weariness, and a few haunted by the dark memories of battlefield carnage.”2 For many, the warmth of welcome, the kinship of family, and the familiarity of home deeply comforted them. “I didn’t believe that I was home until I got to see my folks,” one Canadian Cree veteran recalled. “I said to myself, ‘I’m on home ground now. I’m safe.’”3 Such commentaries highlight the shared humanity and commonalities in experiences between Indigenous service personnel and their non-Indigenous comrades in arms. At the most basic and personal level, the war’s end was about a young man or woman returning home to families and lives left behind, each story unique though replicated countless times across Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.
Yet arriving home was only the beginning of a war veteran’s experience. Subsequently, the legislative and administrative architecture [End Page 63] prepared to aid returned service personnel transition back to civilian life figured prominently. The relative success of reestablishment measures for the bulk of American, Australian, New Zealander, and Canadian ex-service personnel has contributed hugely to the popular view of the Second World War as the “good war.” The degree to which Native American, Māori, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander Australian and First Nations veterans participated in this rosy postwar story is uncertain. This study addresses this gap in our understanding through a transnational examination of the administration of veterans’ benefits for Indigenous military personnel in four victorious settler societies that all mobilized significant recruits from their Indigenous minority populations. The value in this approach is in helping to distinguish peculiar conditions within any individual Indigenous community or country from broader shared patterns of settler colonialism. This broader lens works dialectically with more localized studies, challenging assumptions and drawing in concepts and patterns from other experiences in comparable societies.
To date, the postwar experiences of Indigenous Second World War veterans have garnered little scholarly attention in these four settler societies.4 Canada is a partial exception to this pattern due to a high-profile lobbying campaign over Indigenous veterans’ grievances from the 1970s to the 2000s.5 Central in transitioning to civilian life was the support available to returning servicemen and servicewomen from their governments. All four of these victorious states developed elaborate and generous packages for all veterans. Though the precise mechanics differed, each government tended to craft a similar blend of financial reward, transitional funds, training/educational provisions, employment support/advantages, access to loans for land or business development, disability pensions, and other miscellaneous measures.6 Governments had learned from the inadequacies of programs for veterans after the First World War and sought to construct a more flexible, compassionate, and comprehensive system the second time around.7 In each country, veterans’ programs were early and massive experiments in state social welfare development.8 The integration of Indigenous minorities into broader welfare structures was a complex process of converting Indigenous people from segregated services supposedly designed for distinct groups to inclusion in state programs designed for all citizens. The relationship between Indigenous service personnel and the benefits available to veterans was a microcosm of the broader integration of Indigenous populations into settler state welfare.
For Indigenous peoples and settler societies alike, access to military service and status as army, navy, or air force members had been an important and...