DAHLGREN, Va. – A week before Navajo code talkers were recognized at the White House for their vital impact in World War II, Juanita Mullen recalled the day a Native American met Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to end the American Civil War.
Moreover, Mullen – a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians who is the Veterans Administration’s Liaison for American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans – explained why Ely Parker’s historic meeting with the Confederate Army commander was unlikely.
The retired Air Force veteran spoke to an audience of military, government, and defense contractors celebrating National American Indian Heritage and Veterans-Military Families Month at the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren theater, Nov. 21.
“He could not take the bar exam because Senecas were not American citizens,” Mullen told the audience, adding that Parker also wanted to be an engineer in the Union Army but was denied due to his race.
Eventually, Gen. Ulysses Grant, commander of the Union armies – in dire need of engineers at the time – gave Parker a commission as a Union officer. As the general’s adjutant, Parker drafted the final copy of Grant’s terms of surrender for Lee at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
As she described the scene, Mullen repeated the words between Lee and Parker as stated in the National Geographic book, The Indian Wars, by Anton Treuer. “I’m glad to see one real American here,” said Lee upon his surrender while shaking hands with Parker who immediately responded – “We are all Americans.”
Parker – a Seneca Tribe sachem (chief and tribal diplomat) – advanced throughout his U.S. military and civil service career, becoming one of two Native Americans who attained the rank of brigadier general during the Civil War.
The division commander in Grant's army saw action in the Chattanooga Campaign and the Battle of the Wilderness. He is credited with saving Grant and Gen. George Meade from capture or death as they rode perilously close to the Confederate line after a day of fighting in the wilderness. Parker, sensing danger, led them away from an ambush that a captured Confederate officer later said would happen in minutes. After the war, Parker became the first American Indian to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior.
The Seneca nation is the largest among six Native American nations forming the Iroquois confederacy, a democratic government that predates the U.S. Constitution. The constitutional separation of U.S. government powers was based on the structure of the Iroquois nation. Known as the “Keeper of the Western Door,” the Seneca were located west of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora nations in New York State before the American Revolution.
Throughout history, Native Americans continually and positively impacted America as a nation, society, and culture. As an ambassador of peace, Sacajawea guided Lewis and Clark on their exploration across the west to the Pacific coast. Hopi, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Winnebago, Seminole, Navajo, and Cherokee used their languages as secret codes to protect American forces in several wars. Navajo code talkers created and memorized a code based on the Navajo language, which helped the Marines win the Pacific campaign in World War II.
The contributions of Native Americans to U.S military strength and national security attest to the rich legacy of the first Americans. Since the Revolutionary War, Native Americans participated in every major U.S. military campaign.
“In fact, Indians have fought for the U.S. armed forces at a higher rate per capita than any other racial group in the country,” said Mullen. “For many, military service was an economic opportunity in a world that threw up racial barriers to gainful employment for people of color. It was also a way to continue ancient warrior traditions and earn respect from the people at home as well as others who often had little respect for Indians.”
As President Donald Trump listened with those in attendance at the White House ceremony on Nov. 27, Peter MacDonald – Marine Corps veteran and one of the Navajo code talkers – recounted the legacy of the code talkers.
“In every battle – from the front line, beach command post, command ship, all other ships – code talkers were used,” said MacDonald, adding that Marine Corps leadership recognized that without the Navajo, Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima.
“Native Americans have bravely answered the call to defend our country for more than 200 years, serving with distinction in every branch of the Armed Services,” said Capt. Gus ‘Godfrey’ Weekes, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division commanding officer. “Native Americans have influenced every stage of America's development – from helping early European settlers survive and thrive in a new land to contributing democratic ideas to our constitutional framers.”
More than ever, Native Americans are making rich contributions while living according to their traditions and cultures. Now, more than 30 tribal colleges across the country are educating future accountants, doctors, lawyers, health care workers, educators, policymakers, and political leaders.
Veterans Day dates back to 1926 when Congress passed a resolution for an annual observance. In 1938, Veterans Day became a national holiday.
“As we prepare for Thanksgiving, this is another perfect occasion to express our gratitude for the contributions of our veterans here at Dahlgren and our service members stationed around the world who are protecting us from enemy threats,” said Weekes as he called the audience’s attention to the following statistics:
• 16 million living veterans served during at least one war.
• 5.2 million veterans served in peacetime.
• Two million veterans are women.
• Of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, about 558,000 are still alive.
For 98 years, Americans have remembered those who served our country in uniform on Nov. 11 – first as Armistice Day, and then, since 1954 as Veterans Day. In this 99th year of commemoration, the Department of Veterans Affairs broadened that tradition of observance and appreciation to include veterans and military families for the entire month of November, which coincides with National American Indian Heritage Month.
Since 1994, American Indians and Native Alaskans have been recognized during National American Indian Heritage Month for their respect of natural resources and the Earth, for having served with valor in our nation's conflicts, and for their many distinct and important contributions to the United States. Today, there are a total of 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States of America.
During the 20th century, three Sailors of American Indian and Native Alaskan heritage received the Medal of Honor – Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, Lt. Michael Thorton, and Boatswain's Mate 1st Class James Williams.
In addition, Mullen citied the following statistics related to military service among American Indians and Alaska Natives:
• 31,000 American Indian and Alaska Native men and women are on active duty today, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world.
• 140,000 living Native Americans are veterans. Eleven and a half percent of these veterans are female, compared to eight percent of all other ethnicities.
• 18.6% of Native Americans served in the post-9/11 period – a higher percentage than veterans of other ethnicities, 18.6 percent versus 14 percent, respectively.
• Native Americans are Purple Heart recipients, Bronze Star medal honorees, and many have been recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military award of the United States.
The U.S. Navy is made up of American Indian and Native Alaskan Sailors and civilians. More than 9,000 American Indian and Native Alaskan Sailors hold nearly every job from naval aviator to deep-sea diver. There are more than 2,000 American Indian and Native Alaskan civilians working for the Department of the Navy.
A diverse workforce positions the Navy to operate successfully around the globe by bringing together Sailors and civilians with different ideas, experiences, perspectives, capabilities and skill sets. Integrating Sailors and civilians from diverse backgrounds into the force allows the Navy to recruit and retain the nation's top talent from a vast pool of skilled personnel.
For more information about the history of American Indians and Native Alaskans and their numerous contributions to the Navy, visit www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/diversity/american-indians.html.