TULALIP — Elson James pushed through the fevers of pneumonia to march toward Germany with his unit in 1918. He led night patrols and guided fellow soldiers through territory that was teeming with the enemy.
The men in his unit considered him a hero, according to a letter an officer sent to James’ mother.
James, 23 years old when he died, was one of nine American Indian men from Tulalip who served in World War I. Another Tulalip man, Alphonsus Bob, also died in France in 1918. He was 29 years old.
Both men gave their lives for a country that then denied them the right to vote. They were among an estimated 12,000 Indians who risked their lives during World War I, which formally ended in 1919 — five years before the federal government bequeathed citizenship upon every Indian born within U.S. territory.
Many soldiers were rewarded with citizenship in 1919, but they returned home to family members who were denied at the ballot box because of their race. And before they pulled on their uniforms and slung guns over their shoulders, that’s what happened to them, too.
Still, they joined.
“There’s a warrior’s instinct to fight,” said John Campbell, the nephew of James. “We pass on this tradition to serve, fight, and die for our country.”
Indians volunteer for military service at disproportionately high rates. About 12,000 Indians served during World War I, and more than 44,000 Indians served during World War II, according to the federal Department of Veteran’s Affairs. More than 10,000 Indians served during the Korean War, and more than 42,000 Indians served during the Vietnam War. Their service continued during the Gulf War, and more than 24,000 Indians are currently serving.
About 3 percent of Indian men between the ages of 20 and 44 enlist in active duty, compared to about 2 percent of all men between the same ages.
“I didn’t know how I could go through life without saying that I stood up for my country,” said Mel Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors.
Sheldon served in the Army in Vietnam. He was 18 years old when he joined, and thrilled at the prospect of flying a helicopter. Someone told him that if he wanted to fly, he should volunteer as a scout pilot.
“I had no idea what that meant at first,’ Sheldon said.
When he got to Vietnam, Sheldon’s commanders gave him his orders: fly low enough to find the trails through the jungle used by enemy soldiers. That meant flying slowly, Sheldon said, and often getting shot at.
He logged 900 flight hours over the course of one year, he said.
Sheldon said he joined for the same reasons many young men go to war: to see the world, to learn how to clean a powerful firearm, to feel the weight of a helmet.
To become a man.
“Certainly, Hollywood has portrayed the American Indian as a warrior,” Sheldon said. “But for me, it was a patriotic desire.”
On the Tulalip Indian Reservation, military veterans are honored as the modern-day versions of those who protected Coast Salish villages from Alaskan raiders. An annual Veteran’s PowWow honors their service, and a tribal office tends to their needs. The first exhibit at the Hibulb Cultural Center, scheduled to open late this year or sometime next year, is expected to focus on tribal veterans.
“I think it is part of our tradition for our young people to maintain a military/warrior position in the tribe,” Tulalip tribal member Terry Williams said in a veterans directory published by the tribes in 2005. “Serving in the military is still an honor, and it is still important to us.”
Williams is a leader among the Tulalips, and other Pacific Northwest tribes, in protecting natural resources.
Stan Jones, a longtime tribal leader, said he volunteered to serve during World War II because all of his friends did. The possibilities were thrilling for young men from the Tulalip Indian Reservation, he said. After hearing stories of how their grandparents were forced to live on the reservation, Jones said, the idea of traveling around the world was too good to pass up.
“We did it for the freedom,” he said.
But once he arrived in the Pacific theater, Jones said, he faced discrimination. His officers segregated Indians, he said, but there weren’t any other Indians in his unit. Jones said he was forced to carry out patrols by himself.
“I was by myself in this tent made for six men, and I’d have to walk around it all night long, watching for those Japanese,” he said
When he went into the tent, Jones said, he created several sleeping areas and padded them to look like they contained soldiers. Jones crouched near the tent flap and aimed his gun, ready for anyone.
“I was terrified,” he said.
Jones doesn’t regret his military service.
“I think young men today should join the Army or the Marines,” he said. “It’s good for them to see what the world is like.”
Indians are better-equipped than others to handle the challenges they face in the military, said Lawrence Gross, a Montana State University professor who has studied Indian veterans’ issues.
Many Indians, like many non-Indians, suffered from alcoholism, drug addiction and other problems when they returned from wartime service, but in general, Gross said, they were equipped with cultural resources that could help them cope.
Indians returning from combat report suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at rates similar to non-Indians, but they exhibit fewer symptoms after one year of returning home than non-Indians, he said. That’s due to the warm reception and continued recognition they receive from their tribes upon their return, Gross said. It also reflects an distinctive Indian worldview that acknowledges that life is complicated, and that right and wrong are rarely clearly defined, he added.
“One thing that can help you cope is to have a worldview in which you realize that human beings are complicated, life is complicated, but that forgiveness is possible,” he said. “If you go off to war and kill people, which your religion tells you is evil, you’ll suffer a pretty severe existential crisis.
“Moving on with life becomes possible when you realize that it might be terrible to go off and kill people in war, but it’s necessary,” he said.
That worldview is taught from childhood, often through the “trickster stories” common in Indian Country, he said.
“The trickster will do something foolish, something that’s incredibly dumb, and suffer the consequences, but what happens in the end is the guy picks himself up and keeps moving,” Gross said. “This storytelling tradition puts American Indians in a better position to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Despite deep-rooted cultural practices, some Indian veterans privately say the tribes weren’t always as prepared to deal with returning warriors as they are today. As the trickster stories taught, people learned from mistakes.
“We all found our own ways to deal with it,” Sheldon said.
Veterans of World War II and Vietnam didn’t join to be regarded as heroes, he said. There may be some truth to the suggestions that Indians join to act out their warrior traditions, or because they are innately compelled to protect their home, but those reasons often only emerge after years of reflection.
“Some things came to me after years of trying to forget,” he said. “But those are the lessons of life.”