Last week, I visited the site of the Battle of Rosebud Creek on the Crow Reservation in Big Horn County and was reminded of the role that Native Americans have played in the United States military.
Perhaps that seems a strange statement considering that they also had, perhaps, a more significant role fighting against the United states military, but since the Revolutionary War Native Americans have also fought with distinction for the United States.
General George Crook, in command at the Rosebud, was unusual for his time; he not only believed in utilizing Indian troops, he believed in being square with them. Although his policy of converting nomadic Indians to farmers and storekeepers seems quaint and patronizing today, in the 1870s it was radical, and unpopular with Crook’s contemporaries. When Crook died in 1890, Red Cloud, leader of the Oglala Lakota, said of him, “Crook never lied to us. His words gave the people hope. He died. Their hope died again.”
In addition to the 1,050 soldiers under Crook’s command, there were 260 Crow and Shoshone troops called Scouts. They were attacked by a similar number of Lakota and Cheyenne under Crazy Horse, who on that day handed Crook his only defeat.
After the battle, with provisions low, Crook took his troops back to his camp on Goose Creek, near Sheridan, Wyoming. This move deprived Custer of much-needed support at the battle of the Little Bighorn a few days later.
One thought led to another as I tried to reconstruct the battle, and the thoughts kept circling back to the patriotism Native Americans exhibit for a nation that has almost always treated them shabbily. I have seen this at parades, meetings of tribal councils, and the color guards that seem omnipresent at important Native gatherings. A higher percentage of Indians have served in the U. S. Armed Forces than any other ethnic group. While some few have been drafted, far, far more have volunteered.
You can guess at some of the reasons behind this high rate of service. The first that comes to my mind is the importance of the warrior in Native American culture, followed by the opportunity enlisting gives to a people who face daunting obstacles for success in their lives — astoundingly high rates of unemployment and hence, poverty, illness and hopelessness.
Their patriotism seems contradictory considering that they are a people who have traditionally been treated with paternalism laced with condescension by the U. S. government, and whose traditional cultures have been dismissed, ridiculed and just plain outlawed.
But the patriotism exhibited by Native Americans can’t be satisfactorily explained solely by those two conditions. It seems to be just a pure love of America and a pride in representing their tribes while serving their country.
I will hazard a guess as to the foundation of their patriotism. If you have ever traveled to the Montana reservations you cannot help but to absorb the landscape into your heart. Then visualize that landscape unfenced, untilled, unsullied as it once was. That is the original America, and the peoples who are now called “Indian” are the original Americans.
Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly newspapers across Montana and online at Last Best News and Missoula Current.