Honoring and Remembering Indigenous Civil War Veterans in Public Spaces

Honoring and Remembering Indigenous Civil War Veterans in Public Spaces

Artist rendering by Harvey Pratt/Butzer Architects and Urbanism, illustration by Skyline Ink. Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial was held on September 21, 2019—the fifteen-year anniversary of the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The memorial will be located on the grounds of the NMAI on the National Mall. The ceremony included the presentation of the colors by the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, speeches, a blessing of the ground before the groundbreaking, and, in closing, an honor song by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Singers.[1] The finished memorial—the Warrior’s Circle of Honor—will consist of a steel circle standing on a stone drum with water-flowing off of the drum, surrounded by lances where visitors can tie prayer cloths. The artist, Harvey Pratt, hopes his design will create a sacred place of “healing and comfort” for visitors, especially veterans.[2]

Pratt is a multimedia artist and forensic artist. He is also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. The memorial is meant to honor Indigenous veterans from the American Revolution through the present—a goal Congresswoman Deb Haaland commented on in her speech during the groundbreaking. Haaland’s parents both served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and Congresswoman Sharice Davids (also the daughter of a veteran) were the first Native American women elected to Congress. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Haaland emphasized that “Native Americans have served the nation’s military at a higher rate than any other group of people and have participated in every major U.S. military encounter since the Revolutionary War, yet Native American veterans and their contributions to our country have largely gone unrecognized throughout history. But we’re going to change that with the installation of this wonderful memorial. Our country owes a great deal of gratitude to the Native American community.” [3] Haaland briefly mentioned the Civil War, along with the American Revolution and the War of 1812, before talking about Indigenous contributions to twentieth-century conflicts. The National Native American Veterans Memorial has been a long time in the making with veterans, activists, and supporters arguing for a space to honor Native American veterans.

As part of these larger efforts to specifically recognize the military service and contributions of Native Americans, Indigenous individuals and nations have worked for Native Civil War veterans to be honored and remembered. In May 2010, descendants of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) soldiers in Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters traveled to Andersonville, Georgia, to honor seven Anishinaabe soldiers who died at Camp Sumter. The seven Anishinaabe men who died at Andersonville were part of a group of fifteen Company K soldiers captured at Petersburg in June 1864. Members of the Anishinabe Ogitchedaw Veteran and Warrior Society conducted a drum ceremony, sang a Mukwa (bear) song, and saluted the graves of the soldiers.[4]

Andersonville is not the only Civil War site where Company K men have been honored and remembered. In December 2010, Company K descendants and tribal representatives traveled to Petersburg, Virginia, to honor and recognize American Indian soldiers buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery (including graves of Brothertown Indians and Menominee).[5] Eric Hemenway, who is currently the Director of the Department of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, was one of the tribal representatives honoring Anishinaabe soldiers at Poplar Grove. Hemenway also attended a July 2014 commemoration of the Battle of the Crater, where Company K men fought.[6] Hemenway has researched and talked about Company K in multiple venues, working towards recognition of the participation of the Anishinaabek from Michigan in the Civil War. He argues that their story is important to understanding the Civil War, and he stresses their contribution to the Union war effort despite not being United States citizens.[7] The National Park Service has acknowledged the specific contributions of American Indians to the Civil War, releasing a collaborative book in 2013 to help educate the public.[8] There are plans and conversations at specific sites to facilitate collaborations between the NPS and several tribes in order to remember and honor Indigenous peoples who participated in the Civil War.

In the late 1860s, government officials sometimes remarked on the Civil War service of American Indian veterans. The U.S. Indian Agent for the Mackinac Agency, Richard Smith, wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs about “our Indians.” Smith estimated 196 Native men from the Mackinac Agency enlisted in the Union army. “Very much to their credit and praise it is to be mentioned, that when offered an opportunity of engaging in the military service of the country, they promptly and cheerfully came forward and assumed all the duties and responsibilities of the soldier.” In common rhetoric for a nineteenth-century government official, Smith noted that “these men who have thus periled their lives for their country deserve none the less of that country because of the tawny color of their skins.” Smith goes on in the following paragraphs to request “special attention” for the “land matter of the Indians of this agency.”[9] Service in the Civil War was mentioned occasionally in other correspondence related to land and politics in Michigan. Drawing attention to Anishinaabe Methodists and their contributions to the war, an 1866 report underscored: “These people are patriots as well. This mission [Pine River], was represented in the noble army of the Union. Some of their numbers went forth to return no more…. They fell in the conflict, and are now sleeping in honorable and honored graves on the battlefields of the republic.”[10] The Anishinaabek and government officials used similar rhetoric when negotiating citizenship after the war. While returning veterans were noted by government officials, many of the promises related to land were not fulfilled. As Hemenway has recounted in numerous interviews, the Anishinaabe members of Company K who returned home “were dealing with the same discrimination and same issues that were plaguing Native communities before they left.”[11]

The First Michigan Sharpshooters monument outside of the Michigan State Capitol was authorized by the state legislature in 1915. Photo by author.

Anishinaabe veterans took part in reunions and remembrances of their Civil War service. Veteran Francis Tabasash gave a speech about the war and his exploits at an event attended by the Indian agent for the Mackinac Agency. An account of the event calls it a “war-dance” but does not provide details about the context, participants, or attendees.[12] Tabasash may also have participated in Memorial Day parades. Upon Tabasash’s death, a newspaper reported that “[a]fter the war he returned to his farm, and his stooped form and gray hair were always seen in the soldiers’ parade here [Harbor Springs] on Memorial Day. He was the oldest member of the local G.A.R..”[13] Some Anishinaabe veterans joined the Grand Army of the Republic and took part in G.A.R. events, as well as regimental reunions. As part of the First Michigan Sharpshooters, Anishinaabe soldiers are memorialized with the First Michigan Sharpshooters monument outside of the Michigan State Capitol. They have been remembered in multiple ceremonies, talks, and discussions across Michigan by descendants, tribal nations, and outside researchers. The honoring of Native American veterans on the National Mall will be another step toward acknowledging the service of Native Americans in the Civil War, which is just one part of the larger contribution Native Americans have made to the U.S. Armed Forces.

[1] Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), “The Groundbreaking Ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial,” YouTube, September 26, 2019, accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k64CV5wkkkg.

[2] Harvey Pratt, “Meet Your Designers 4— National Native American Veterans Memorial,” YouTube, February 7, 2018, accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sPA3bBchUw.

[3] Congresswoman Deb Haaland, “The Groundbreaking Ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial,” YouTube, September 26, 2019, accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k64CV5wkkkg. Also quoted in Rosemary Stephens, “Breaking Ground for the National Native American Veterans Memorial,” Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune, October 1, 2019, 1 and 7. Accessed November 10, 2019, https://cheyenneandarapaho-nsn.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Oct.-1-2019.pdf.

[4] David B. Schock, Kookoosh Roger Williams Kchinodin, and Chris Czopek, The Road to Andersonville [film], Penultimate, Ltd., 2013.

[5] Major Jo Ann P. Schedler, “Wisconsin American Indians in the Civil War,” in American Indians and the Civil War ed. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2013), 86.

[6] Jim Burnett, “American Indians in the Civil War? Petersburg National Battlefield is Part of the Story,” National Parks Traveler, December 17, 2010, accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2010/12/american-indians-civil-war-petersburg-national-battlefield-part-story7361 and Thomas Duvernay, “Retracing the Footsteps of their Ancestor, A Member of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters,” Odawa Trails, October 2014, 6. Accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.ltbbodawa-nsn.gov/newspaper/2014/October2014.pdf.

[7] Eric Hemenway and Sammye Meadows, “Soldiers in the Shadows: Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters,” in American Indians and the Civil War, 48.

[8] Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, eds., American Indians and the Civil War (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2013).

[9] Richard M. Smith to Dennis N. Cooley, October 30, 1865, in Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1865 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865), 452-453.

[10] The Forty-Seventh Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Year 1865 (New York: The Society, 1866), 121.

[11] Eric Hemenway and Steve Ostrander, Stateside/Michigan Radio NPR, “The Story of Company K: Native Americans from Michigan who saw Tough Action in the Civil War,” August 23, 2017, accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.michiganradio.org/post/story-company-k-native-americans-michigan-who-saw-tough-action-civil-war.

[12] Andrew J. Blackbird to James W. Long, December 12, 1869, in Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75, National Archives Microfilm 234, Reel 408.

[13] “Indian Veteran Dead,” Grand Rapids News, November 23, 1912, 5.

Michelle Cassidy

Michelle Cassidy is assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2016. Her current project emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. She has presented her research at numerous conferences and has published an article in the Michigan Historical Review.

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