World War II & American Indians: The Home Front

( – promoted by navajo)

World War II brought many changes to Indian reservations and to American Indians on the home front. These changes began during the war, and then continued following the war.

It should be noted that an American Indian reservation was attacked during the war. In 1945, a Japanese bomb carried by balloon landed on the Hupa reservation in Northern California.

In New York, the Six Nations Iroquois – Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Cayuga – declared war on the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in 1942.

During the war American Indians showed their support for the war effort in many different ways. For example, many Indians, like other Americans, grew Victory Gardens to show their support for the war. In 1942, Indians planted a total of 36,200 gardens: this is roughly one victory garden for every two Indian families.

The Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board (Sioux and Assiniboine tribes) in Montana passed a resolution supporting U.S. involvement in the war and pledged men, women, and materials to the war effort. The Board asked to use $10,000 of their tribal money to purchase defense bonds.

In Arizona, the Cibeque Apache held a war dance for seven young men who were about to join U.S. combat forces. Each of the men was blessed with bat power which enabled them to dodge bullets with the same ease that bats avoid objects in the dark.

Concentration Camps:

In 1942, the federal government established concentration camps for Japanese Americans on two Indian reservations in Arizona: the Gila Indian Reservation and the Colorado River Indian Reservation (Mohave and Chemehuevi). The tribes were not consulted.

With regard to the Colorado River Indian Reservation, the government promised that the land would be returned to the tribes substantially improved for future agricultural use. The tribes opposed the concentration camp, but understood that if they refused the government’s demands they would lose the land. The tribe did not respond to the government. On the other hand, non-Indian business people in nearby Parker saw the concentration camp as a good thing. According to the local business association:

“The project’s going to be good for the country. It will develop a lot of land, bring in irrigation, so white farmers can use it. White men can’t work out on the reservation now.”  

In 1943, the U.S. Army removed the Unangan people from the Aleutian Islands and placed them in makeshift camps on the Alaska mainland where they suffered from hunger, cold, and disease. Many of the elders died. Their abandoned villages were vandalized by the American military.

Land Loss:

Among the many sacrifices which Indian Nations made during World War II was to give up reservation land for the war effort. Some 876,000 acres of Indian land was used for the war effort.

In 1942, the army expanded Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. No thought was given to the forced relocation of the Cherokee who were living on the land taken by the army. The Cherokee had already planted their gardens and would not have food for the winter if they were removed. None of the Cherokee who were to be relocated had transportation and the army told them that it did not have any available trucks to help them. The Indians had to rely on friends and relatives to help them move.

In South Dakota, the U.S. Army Air Corps “borrowed” part of the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation for a gunnery range with the understanding that it would be returned after World War II. The army notified 128 tribal members that they had to evacuate their homes within thirty days. Some Indians reported that they were told they would be shot if they did not cooperate.

In another incident, more than 250 Oglala Sioux families were given 10 days’ notice to leave their homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation so that the land could become a bombing range.

In Idaho, the federal government under the War Powers Act condemned 2,100 acres of the Shoshone and Bannock Fort Hall Reservation to be used as an airport. While the land was worth $100 per acre, the government paid the tribes only $10 per acre.

In 1942, the Wanapum fishing villages near the White Bluffs on the Columbia River were closed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a part of a top secret war project called the Gable Project (later called Hanford Engineering Works). The Hanford Nuclear Reservation closed access to an area sacred to the Yakama. Treaty rights were less important than national security.

Bureau of Indian Affairs:

A shortage of doctors and nurses on reservations developed in 1942 as medical personnel joined the armed forces. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier warned of the potential for a complete breakdown of medical services on the reservations.

The need for office space in Washington, D.C. to support the war effort resulted in moving the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to Chicago. The move reduced BIA influence with Congress and other federal agencies. The BIA budget was slashed and New Deal programs for Indians were dropped.

Employment:

On the home front, many Indian men and women left the reservation to work in defense-related industries. A wave of Indian migration from the rural reservations to urban areas was sparked by employment opportunities in the defense industries. Many worked temporary or seasonal jobs, retaining their home base on the reservation. However, many Indians found that they received less money for the same work when compared with non-Indians. Indians working at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, for example, did not receive the same pay as non-Indian workers. The Navajo tribal council asked:

“We do not understand how a Navajo can be a member of a union paying dues to secure the same benefits and be forced to accept a lower pay rate.”

The war brought many Indians into participation of the larger consumer-oriented economy. The war-time employment brought many Indians steady incomes.

Vision:

In 1945, four Cheyenne men-David Deafy, Albert Tall Bull, Bert Two Moon, Mike Little Wolf-vowed to go to Bear Butte in South Dakota to fast. On the fourth day, Deafy had two visions. In the first vision he saw a horse and rider on the top of the Sacred Mountain facing east. Suddenly, the rider charged and his horse galloped down the mountain at full speed. In the second vision, the horse and rider appeared again and as they charged down the mountain, Deafy saw a young boy seated behind the rider.

When the fasters returned to the camp at the base of the mountain, they broke their fast in the traditional way: a swallow of water every 15 minutes and then a little food every 15 minutes. Following this, Deafy described his vision to Whistling Elk. Whistling Elk interpreted the vision to mean that the United States would first defeat Germany and then Japan.