National American Indian Heritage Month


In 1990, Congress designated November as National American Indian Heritage Month. This month has been designated to recognize the accomplishments of the original inhabitants, explorers, and settlers of the United States - American Indian and Alaska Natives. 

 Currently, there are 567 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and more than 100 state-recognized tribes across America. The nation’s population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race, was 5.4 million in 2014, making up about two percent of the total population. By the year 2060, the population of this heritage group is expected to grow to be over 10.2 million. 

Throughout history, generations after generations of American Indian and Alaska Natives have made significant contributions which have shaped our country’s character and culture to include the military. During World War I, more than 8,000 American Indian soldiers, of whom 6,000 were volunteers, served. Their patriotism moved Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

In World War II, 25,000 American Indian and Alaska Native men and women fought on all fronts in Europe and the South Pacific earning, collectively, two Congressional Medals of Honor, at least 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, and 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Many of the medals given were because of the direct support these individuals provided to the Armed Forces by using their traditional tribal languages as weapons fighting the enemy.

The United States military asked these recruits to develop secret battle communications based on their languages so that America’s enemies never deciphered the coded messages they sent. These individuals became known as the “Code Talkers”. Their job was to send coded messages about troop movements, enemy positions, and other critical information on the battlefield. Some Code Talkers translated messages into their Native languages and relayed them to another tribal member. Others developed a special code within their languages that they used in combat to send important messages.

Another significant moment in time was that of Joe Medicine Crow. Joe Medicine Crow was born on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana. Raised by his elders in the tribe’s warrior tradition, Medicine Crow was taught to master his fears, ride bareback, track game, and withstand extreme cold. He was also schooled in the stories of those who had previously distinguished themselves in battle.

He joined the U.S. Army and became a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division. Joe Crow drew on the teachings of his grandfathers, which he credits for giving him the strength to be a warrior. Before heading into battle, he would paint red stripes on his arms, and he carried a sacred eagle feather from a Sun Dance medicine man to shield him from harm. In 1948, he was awarded the Bronze Star and was given the prestigious French Legion of Honor for his services.  During his time in service, he also completed the tasks required of a Crow war chief.  Medicine Crow was the last Crow Indian to become a war chief.


In 2009, Joe Medicine Crow received America’s highest civilian honor when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for serving as the tribal historian for more than 50 years documenting, gathering, and preserving information that otherwise would have been lost.

At the 1964 Olympics, Sioux Indian 1st Lt Billy Mills set a world record and won the gold medal in the 10K race event. He remains the only American to win gold in the event. Following this accomplishment, Mills played a keystone role in the foundation of Running Strong for American Indian Youth an organization dedicated to helping Native American youth lead healthy lifestyles and take pride in their heritage.

Michael Thornton enlisted in the Navy in 1967 after graduating from high school. Upon completion of Basic Underwater Demolition training, he was assigned to Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) Team ONE and served several tours in Vietnam and Thailand. In the spring of 1972, Petty Officer Thornton was assigned to a mission under the command of Lt Thomas Norris.

On his last tour to Vietnam, at the age of 23, Thornton saved the life of his senior officer while on an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation. The small team of two Navy SEALs and three South Vietnamese commandos were discovered by a larger North Vietnamese Army force, and a fierce firefight ensued. Norris finally ordered his outnumbered team to retreat to the sea. Norris, who had earned the Medal of Honor just months earlier, was shot in the face.  A South Vietnamese commando told Thornton that Norris was dead. Thornton refused to leave without his lieutenant, upholding the pledge that no SEAL would ever be left behind by a brother. Although, the wound was grievous and Norris was unconscious, he was still alive. Thornton carried his lieutenant into the water and inflated his lifejacket, swam with him until they were out of the range of fire, and continued to swim for two hours until they were rescued. Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1973. He was the first person in more than a century to receive that honor for saving the life of another Medal of Honor recipient.

            This month, please take the time to learn a little more about the American Indians and Alaska natives. Most of the information for this article was derived from Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute special observance program information. If you would like more information on this special observance please visit or contact the Equal Opportunity Office at 228-5509.