Second Lieutenant Ernest Childers was the first Indigenous person awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II.
This is the highest military honor for valor in the U.S., awarded to only 3,525 soldiers since its establishment in 1861. Childers was a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a resident of an Indian boarding school, and my grandmother’s cousin.
Childers was born in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, living on the “Indian” side of the tracks in 1918. The Childers and McIntosh families (“Christian” names taken when Indigenous peoples were forced to take new names when they registered for the Dawes Rolls) were extremely poor.
Eloise Boudinot, my great-grandmother, was a Childers. My grandmother, Okema Boudinot (Randall), grew up with Ernest prior to his departure to Chilocco Indian Agricultural Boarding School.
As a young man living at Chilocco in 1937, Childers joined a National Guard unit established at the school. After graduating in 1940, he remained with the National Guard, transitioning to active duty with the 45th Infantry Division based in Oklahoma City.
During World War II, he was among the more than 44,000 Indigenous peoples who joined the U.S. armed forces.
While with the 45th Division, Childers and his fellow soldiers trained to see action in Italy. In 1943, he was assigned to C Company, 180th Infantry Division, and sent to a battlefield campaign near Sicily.
According to the National World War II Museum, the following scenario unfolded when Childers and his fellow soldiers saw battle:
“On September 22, 1943, the 45th Division was outflanking German positions defending the town of Oliveto in order to make an organized assault on the town. While trying to take Oliveto, Childers learned his battalion was pinned down by machine-gun and mortar fire. Although he was receiving aid for a broken foot, Childers put together a team of men to find and eliminate the enemy gun positions. Leading this small group, Childers displayed leadership and courage above and beyond the call of duty when he advanced towards German machine gun nests, dispatched their occupants, and took out enemy snipers.”
After the successful battle in 1943, Childers saw more action during the Battle of Anzio the following year. He was wounded in the battle and sent to Naples to recover.
While recovering, General Jacob Devers, the deputy commander of the Mediterranean theater, awarded Childers the Medal of Honor. After the war, he remained in the U.S Army, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1965.
It may be surprising to many American citizens, but Indigenous peoples have been fighting for American causes since the Revolutionary War.
Granted, it’s been a complicated history, as many times Indigenous peoples were forced to take up arms to defend themselves against an oppressive and murderous U.S. government.
However, one would be remiss not to recognize the sacrifices – like the ones Childers made – that Indigenous soldiers have made for the United States.
Not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, Indigenous communities often saw themselves as righteous warriors committed to justice and the preservation of life.
During the Civil War, for instance, General Ely S. Parker, a citizen of the Seneca Nation, served under General Ulysses S. Grant and eventually drafted the terms of surrender for the Confederate army.
Probably the most well-known Indigenous soldiers were the “Code Talkers” of World War II.
During the war, Allied Forces kept encountering problems when German and Italian forces obtained and deciphered their communications.
The solution was to adapt an approach first used in World War I with the Choctaw Telephone Squad, recruiting Indigenous speakers to communicate orders using Indigenous languages.
Since those languages had never been studied extensively, German and Italian forces could not decipher what the Indigenous soldiers were saying.
Indigenous soldiers were recruited primarily from the Navajos, but a small range of Indigenous languages could be heard across European airwaves during the war.
By the end of the war, almost 400 Code Talkers were commissioned from the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche tribes.
Comanche Chief and World War II Code Talker Charles Chibitty gave my brother and me our Indigenous names as we entered adulthood.
Before the ceremony, he told us what it was like to be a Comanche Code Talker. With his infectious laugh, he thought about what the Germans must have been thinking as they listened to him and his fellow Code Talker.
“If those Germans ever learned to speak Comanche, they would have thought we were crazy,” the Chief exclaimed.
“We had no words for ‘bombers’ and ‘tanks’ in the Comanche language, so we made them up. We called a bomber a ‘pregnant goose’ and a tank a ‘pregnant turtle,’” he said. “Can you imagine if the Germans would have recruited another Comanche to decode our communication? They would have thought we were drunk.”
In the modern era, Indigenous peoples still rise to answer the call for service. Almost 19% of all Native Americans have served in the armed forces, compared to 14% of other ethnicities.
While the Indigenous peoples of North America have had – and still have – a complicated relationship with the United States government, their commitment and loyalty to valor is without question.
As dual citizens of their tribes and the United States, Native Americans possess a deep patriotism that existed long before 1492 and 1776.
As Americans commemorate Veterans Day today, I want to thank each and every veteran for their service and sacrifice.
As a proud citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I want to especially thank my Indigenous brothers and sisters.
As I offer my thanks and respect, I recall an old Dakota proverb, “We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.”
While my ancestors have left tracks marred with tears and blood, they have also left tracks of great warriors committed to justice and the preservation of liberty.
Each ancestral track matters, for they tell the long history of my people. And for those tracks with boot imprints, I give thanks for you on this Veterans Day.
CEO of Good Faith Media.