Feature   Observances

DOD Honors Native Americans and Their Many Contributions to the Nation

Nov. 1, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

The Defense Department and the nation are celebrating National Native American Heritage Month, which is every November.

It's a time to reflect on the contributions and sacrifices Native Americans have made to the United States, not just in the military, but in all walks of life.

A poster features a drawing of a wolf.
National American Indian Heritage Month
The official Defense Department poster for 2021 National American Indian Heritage Month.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 211001-O-D0439-001

A significant number of Native Americans have served in all of the nation's wars beginning with the Revolutionary War.

Twenty-nine service members of Native American heritage have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest medal for valor: 25 soldiers, three sailors and one Marine.

A soldier poses for a photo.
Army Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble
Army Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota, served in both World War II and the Korean War and received the Medal of Honor for valor during the Korean War.
Photo By: Arm photo
VIRIN: 510901-O-D0439-001C
A pilot poses for a photo.
Marine Corps Maj. Pappy Boyington
Marine Corps Maj. Pappy Boyington, a member of the Brule Sioux tribe, was awarded a Medal of Honor and a Navy Cross Medal for valor during World War II.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 440901-O-D0439-001A

About National Native American Heritage Month

In 1976, as part of the nation's bicentennial commemoration, President Gerald Ford proclaimed Oct. 10-16, 1976, as "Native American Awareness Week."

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed Nov. 23-30, American Indian Week.

On Nov. 14, 1990, President George H. W. Bush declared the month of November as National American Indian Heritage Month to honor the hundreds of Native American tribes and people in the United States, including Alaska but not Hawaii. Native Hawaiians and those in U.S. territories in the Pacific are honored in Asian American  and Pacific Islander Heritage Month each May.

Bush's proclamation reads in part: "During the National American Indian Heritage Month, as we celebrate the fascinating history and time-honored traditions of Native Americans, we also look to the future. Our Constitution affirms a special relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes and — despite a number of conflicts, inequities, and changes over the years — our unique government-to-government relationship has endured. In recent years, we have strengthened and renewed this relationship."

In 2009, President Barack Obama proclaimed the month as National Native American Heritage Month.

A Native American man dances. Another man dances in the background.
Native American Dance
Native American military veterans celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month, Nov. 16, 2012, at a powwow in Los Angeles, Calif.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 121116-D-UB488-001
A Native American man dances.
Native American Dance
A Native American military veteran celebrates National American Indian Heritage Month, Nov. 16, 2012, at a powwow in Los Angeles, Calif.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 121116-D-UB488-002

However, DOD celebrates the month as National American Indian Heritage Month, following the name specified by a joint resolution of Congress, Public Law 103-462, of Nov. 2, 1994, according to Army Staff Sgt. Raul Pacheco, a public affairs noncommissioned officer at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida.

"There are over 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes and not all agree on what term is most appropriate," he said referring to the name American Indian or Native American in the heritage month title.

In 1995 a Department of Labor survey was conducted, which asked American Indian members their preference on how they desired to be called. That survey showed a split with about 49.76% preferring American Indian, 3.5 % Alaskan Native and about 37% preferring Native American.  

The National Native American Veterans Memorial.
National Native American Veterans Memorial
National Native American Veterans Memorial at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Photo By: Courtesy of Michael Perrin
VIRIN: 210901-O-D0439-001C

Others in the survey preferred other terms such as First Indigenous People, Original Peoples or had no preference.

Pacheco noted that the number of tribes also tend to grow each year as additional ones acquire Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition.

Some Interesting Facts

  • Those who claim to be American Indians in the active duty force as of July of this year, number 14,246, or 1.1% of the total force, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. 
  • In 2020, the American Indian and Alaska Native population of 3.7 million accounted for 1.1% of all people living in the United States, compared with 0.9% or 2.9 million in 2010. An additional 5.9 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native and another race group in 2020, such as White or Black or African American. Together, the American Indian and Alaska Native alone or in combination population comprised 9.7 million people, or 2.9% of the total population in 2020, up from 5.2 million or 1.7% in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the bureau, the large population increase from 2010 to 2020 can be attributed to improvements in origin and race questions and improvements in the way the bureau codes survey responses.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian was added to the Smithsonian Institution's museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2004. It includes exhibits of Native Americans from every state, including Hawaii, as well as exhibits of indigenous peoples worldwide, but primarily in the Western Hemisphere.
  • The National Native American Veterans Memorial honors American Indians, Alaska natives and native Hawaiian veterans who have served in the armed forces since the Revolutionary War. It is located on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian and was unveiled on Veterans Day 2020.
  •  In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act extending citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements that granted such status. The act was later amended to include Alaska natives.