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Native Americans' enduring struggle for justice

Guest Blogger

The history of Native Americans symbolizes the long path of American history – and in the 20th century the nation and the race continued to intersect through world wars, cold wars and cultural wars. Paul C. Rosier traces the way American Indians defined their cultural and spiritual values in the context of U.S. engagements at home and overseas. In his book, “Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century,” recently released by Harvard University Press, Rosier shows how Native Americans' struggles for rights and justice are – like the efforts of African Americans – an integral part of the development of American society. Rosier is an associate professor of history at Villanova University.


In December 2009, the Obama administration settled a 13-year old legal dispute over the federal government’s management of American Indian land trust accounts that date to the late 19th century. The $3.4 billion settlement addressed the frauds and failures of government oversight of Indian monies. It also provided a measure of justice to American Indians, who, despite the poor treatment accorded them in matters such as trust accounts, racial discrimination, and treaty violations, have acted patriotically in the name of an America that champions cultural pluralism, minority rights, and international law.

American Indians demonstrated this patriotism in multiple ways during the 20th century. They served their country in World War I in the name of Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy.” A new generation fought overseas in World War II for the four freedoms proclaimed by President Roosevelt. Yet when they returned to New Mexico in 1945 the Navajo Codetalkers and Ira Hayes (Pima), who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, were denied the right to vote.

American Indian veterans and politicians demanded that the United States reward their service as well as uphold 19th century treaties to preserve America’s moral reputation as it assumed a prominent role in shaping post-war international relations.

During the Cold War, American Indian politicians condemned coercive federal Indian policies as fuel for Soviet propaganda campaigns that tried to persuade third world peoples to reject American society because of racial discrimination. American Indian politician Joseph Garry (Couer D’Alene), a veteran of WWII and Korea, put it best when he said that American Indians’ justice campaigns sought to “conserve Indian values and serve the best interests of the nation by protecting its national honor.”

Joining African Americans, American Indians became cultural ambassadors to countries in Africa and Asia to help people there understand what America represented. An American Indian artist and dancer named Tom Two Arrows (Lenape/Onondaga) became an important part of what the U.S. State Department called its “cultural offensive” in South Asia. Appearing at different times in a modern business suit and the traditional clothes of his ancestors, he symbolized the hybrid American/Indian citizen.

Two Arrows connected with tens of thousands of Pakistanis, Indians (of India), and Burmese, demonstrating similarities between their dances, jewelry, and physical features and those of American Indians. He became an actor in a narrative of American inclusiveness at a time when much of the world saw the country violently rent by racial strife.

American Indians’ motivations for serving their country remain constant in the 21st century. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Leonard Gouge (Muscogee Creek) explained why he was serving in the army by saying that in “supporting the American way of life, I am preserving the Indian way of life.”

As in previous eras of global conflict, American Indians continue to see the defense of their ancestral Indian homelands as inseparable from the defense of the American homeland, in part because other nations see the treatment of American Indians as a barometer for how the United States treats other peoples of color.

Starting in 2007 American Indians again served as cultural ambassadors for America when the State Department selected Indian art for display in U.S. embassies worldwide as part of its Artists Becoming Ambassadors program. One artist explained that she sought to capture the fusion of “tribal and Western cultures,” symbolic of American Indians’ longstanding and continuing efforts to define and to defend a version of Americanism designed to make friends among other peoples of the world.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  March 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: American Indians and justices and rights; Native American rights;  
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Our religion was established by the traditions of our ancestors. It is written in the hearts of our people. It can get wild.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 9, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Dan Snyder can go to hell.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | March 9, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Propaganda. Since day one the euro-peon forces SUBJUCATED, BRUTALIZED, AND DISENFRANCHISED native peoples once they gained control of the lands. To say that we "accept" and go along is an abject lie! Like other "minorities" (Black, Hispanic, etc.,.) the "call" to military service is an economic one, not patriotic in the sense that the author would have you believe.

Posted by: Indigenious1 | March 9, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

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