The United States government rightly honors the contributions of Native Americans to defense and protection of our nation. In late November, a White House ceremony recognized the special contributions of the “code talkers,” members of the Navajo Tribe employed in communications in the Pacific theater of World War II.
Appropriately, the ceremony took place shortly before the Dec. 7 anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the military forces of Imperial Japan. Native Americans, along with members of other ethnic and racial minorities, played a crucial role in our ultimate total military victory in that total war.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt rightly — and shrewdly — emphasized national unity as vital in the struggle. Today, his strategic as well as political war leadership is recognized and generally praised.
In early December, the White House removed 2 million acres of land in Utah designated for federal protection. The Bears Ears monument will lose 1.1 million acres, 85 percent of the total area, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument will lose 800,000 acres, 45 percent of the total. President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears shortly before leaving the White House.
Five American Indian tribes are participating in a lawsuit opposing these drastic changes: the Hopi, the Navajo, the Pueblo, the Ute Indian and the Ute Mountain. The lands have cultural and religious significance for the tribes.
President Donald Trump marred the code talker ceremony with a crude ethnic reference to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as “Pocahontas,” and emphasized economic development as well as tourism opportunities in freeing the lands from federal supervision.
The media have overwhelmingly focused on these dimensions, but the underlying story is the profound, often-overlooked contributions of American Indians to American history, including but not limited to the military. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, 5,000 Native Americans were in uniform.
By the end of World War II, more than 44,500 American Indians served in the U.S. armed forces. That is more than 10 percent of their population. Many distinguished themselves in combat, as in earlier and later wars.
During the Vietnam War, Navy Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class James Elliott Williams, a Cherokee, commanded Navy PBR (Patrol Boat, Riverine) 105 in the Mekong Delta. On Oct. 31, 1966, his own patrol boat and a partner boat came under heavy fire from virtually all directions. He directed maneuver and fire of the boats, and effectively called in support from Navy Seawolves attack helicopters. U.S. forces destroyed more than 50 junks and sampans, and killed approximately 1,000 of the enemy.
Also in Vietnam, Army Staff Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez, a Yaqui, served with Detachment B56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces. On May 2, 1968, a helicopter inserted a Special Forces team in dense jungle west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam, an area with substantial enemy activity, and resulting combat killed or wounded all team members.
Benavidez volunteered to go to the area with a rescue helicopter. Despite repeated serious wounds, he carried or dragged wounded men to the extraction zone. He rallied comrades and formed a defensive perimeter after another incoming helicopter crashed. Only when all other Americans still alive were safe did he agree to withdraw.
These Medal of Honor recipients are only two examples of many Native Americans who have rallied to our nation, starting with the American Revolution.
Honor the code talkers and other heroes, who honor us all, and avoid distraction from pettiness.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”