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Indigenous people of the United States have participated in every war or military conflict in our country’s history. While Indigenous people have served in the armed forces valiantly, their services generally have been overlooked by the public. Perhaps their service is overlooked because of segregation laws in Virginia and the United States. Or because Indigenous people were not considered citizens of the United States until 1924. Or because scholars focus only on certain ethnic groups’ war accomplishments. Today, scholars and institutions work to rectify this lapse to make sure that all citizens of the United States understand the sacrifice of this group of Americans.

World War I

An estimated 12,000 Indigenous Americans served in the armed forces during World War I. 1 From the founding of the United States until 1924, Indigenous people were not recognized as citizens of the country. Like African Americans, Indigenous people decided to fight in World War I to prove their loyalty to this country and that their people deserved all the rights and privileges of being American citizens.

On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, “which authorized the Federal Government to temporarily expand the military through conscription. The act eventually required all men between the ages of 21 to 45 to register for military service.”2 While men of age either enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces, two Indigenous tribes in Virginia—the Pamunkey and Mattaponi—fought vigorously to make sure that their citizens were not drafted.

The Pamunkey and Mattaponi debated with the Commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government regarding drafting men into the armed services. One such individual speaking out was Chief George Major Cook of the Pamunkey Tribe. Once Congress passed the Selective Service Act, he and many others wrote letters and took part in depositions expressing their opposition to having their tribal citizens drafted.

In a deposition dated August 25, 1917, given on behalf of Ashland Holmes, Chief George Major Cook stated that state officials—specifically Assistant Attorney General Leon M. Bazile, Assistant Attorney General Leslie C. Garnett, and Auditor of Public Accounts C. Lee Moore—expressed that since these tribes did not pay taxes, “and that the male members thereof have never been allowed to exercise the privilege of voting, and therefore affiant believes that they are not deemed and held citizens within the laws of this State and of the United States, and hence that the members of said Tribe are not properly subject to draft for military service in present war.”3

World War II

During World War II more than 40,000 Indigenous people served in the United States armed forces.4  For their dedication and honorable service, Indigenous servicemen and women received “71 Air medals, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, and 5 Medals of Honor. Roughly 20 percent of all American Indians, men and women, were involved in the war effort, either in the service or working in war-related industries on the home front.” 5

Similar to World War I, the passage of the Selective Service Act and mobilization through the local draft boards led Virginia’s Native people to once again declare and fight to have their identity recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia and United States government.6 Most Indigenous men who desired to register for the draft faced multiple hurdles to be recognized on federal documentation as “Indian.” Local draft boards and the Selective Service System did not know where these Indigenous men would serve in the armed forces, in the white-only troops or the “colored”-only troops. Chief O. Oliver Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, wrote to the War Department that “my people are American Indians of the State of Virginia. The youth is called to serve the country, but I am sure they will not go as the Negro race in the United States Army and fight for those who misrepresent our government and take away our rights as American Indian people of this state.”7 Through court cases and refusals to register for the draft, Indigenous men forced the federal government as well as local draft boards to accept their identity as “Indian” on all draft registration information and serve their country valiantly.8

An invaluable resource that illuminates the service of Indigenous veterans is Virginia’s World War II Separation Notices collection. It includes approximately 250,000 notices for soldiers and sailors who served during World War II.  When a solider or sailor was discharged from the armed services, the individual had to indicate they would seek employment in Virginia. In these documents, researchers can find the veteran’s date of birth, physical description, marital status, civilian occupation, rank, military organization, date of induction or enlistment, military occupation, decorations and citations, wounds received in action, total length of service, and much more. Following are a handful of examples of Indigenous stories found in that collection.

James A. Adkins

Adkins enlisted into the Army on March 27, 1943, served for two years, and was separated from the Army on February 24, 1946.9 He rose from the rank of Private to Sergeant. Adkins’s military duties included working in the CWS Depot, where he was the foreman of the warehouse maintaining mortar shells, smoke grenades, colored grenades, and other types of munitions. He also worked with the 194th CML Depot Company in France, Luxemburg, and the Philippines.10

Jasper C. Adams

Private First Class Adams enlisted in the Army on December 14, 1942, in Richmond, Virginia.11 Adams’s military occupation was a rifleman. He served at Normandy, the Ardennes, Rhineland, and in Central Europe. For his service, he was awarded the Good Conduct medal and European African Middle Eastern Service Ribbon. Adams separated from the Army on October 27, 1945, at Fort George Meade in Maryland.12

Allison Grant Custalow

Custalow, son of Chief O.T. Custalow of the Mattaponi Tribe, enlisted on June 8, 1944, in Richmond, Virginia.13 Only twenty days later, he sailed out of New Orleans on board the U.S.S. LST 614 to fight in the war. During his enlistment, Allison was awarded the Asiatic Pacific (3 star) medal, Victory World II medal, and the Philippine Liberation (2 star) medal. He separated from the armed forces June 1946 and indicated that he would work at the Tide Water Pickle Company, located at Fort Richmond.  Allison passed away on June 9, 1999, at age 73.14 His final resting place is at the Mattaponi Indian Reservation Baptist Church Cemetery.15

James A. Bradby

Bradby, of Charles City County, registered for the draft when he reached the age of eighteen and was inducted into the army on October 4, 1945, at Fort George G. Meade.16  During his service, Bradby worked as an automotive equipment operator.17 He received the World War II Victory Medal.18 Bradby began the process of separating from the army on November 22, 1946, at the Westover Field in Massachusetts.19 He indicated that he planned to work as a teamster once he got back to Virginia. James Bradby passed away on November 15, 1999, at the age of seventy-two.20

National Native American Veterans Memorial

National Native American Veteran Memorial

Photo by Alan Karchmer

On November 11, 2022, the National Museum of the American Indian dedicated a memorial to Indigenous veterans. Harvey Phillip Pratt, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations of Oklahoma and a Vietnam veteran, won the honor of having his design chosen out of 120 submissions. This is the first time that the United States paid tribute to Native heroes who served in the armed forces.  The memorial is made of a stainless-steel circle “balanced on an intricately carved stone drum . . . The design incorporates water for ceremonies, benches for gathering and reflection, and four lances where veterans, family members, tribal leaders, and others can tie cloths for prayers and healing.”21

According to an interview Pratt gave to NPR, “A fire in the big steel circle is a hole in the sky where the Creator lives. And we have the Earth and the air. And I thought those are things that we all use, sacred fires, sacred water.” As such he “hopes Natives visitors will use these elements in healing and commemoration ceremonies at the memorial.”22

Indigenous Perspectives opens to the public at the Library of Virginia on Tuesday, December 5, 2023, and continues through Saturday, August 17, 2024.


[1] Alexandra Harris and Mark Hirsch, “World War I”, Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Services, 81.

[2] “Mobilizing for War: The Selective Service Act in World War I,” National Archives Foundation, accessed September 28, 2023,

[3] King William County Chancery Court Case: Holmes and Cook v. Draft Board located in RG 3 Governor’s Letters Received, Governor James H. Price, Box 47: Indians Correspondence. Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. Also online through the Library of Virginia’s Education Project, Shaping the Constitution, Four days earlier in the Richmond Times Dispatch article dated August 21, 1917, the Provost-Marshal-General Crowder stated that the Pamunkey tribe men did not have to serve the armed forces.

[4] Alexandra Harris, “World War II,” Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces, 97.

[5] Harris, Why We Serve, 97. For more information on how Indigenous women participated in World War II, see Grace Mary Gouveia’s article, “We Also Serve”: American Indian Women’s Roles in World War II,” published by Michigan Historical Review.

[6] Paul T. Murray, “Who Is an Indian? Who is a Negro? Virginia Indians in the World War II Draft, 217. On March 20, 1924, Governor E. Lee Trinkle signed into law the Racial Integrity Act, a law that divided Virginia’s population into two categories, white and “colored.” Because they faced classification as “colored,” Indigenous Virginians protested the passage of this law and continuously worked to see it be removed from the Code of Virginia.

[7] Murray, “Who Is an Indian?”, 226.

[8] To learn more about the specific courts that forced the federal government and local draft boards to recognize the identity of Indigenous people in Virginia see, Branham v. Burton (1943) and Paul T. Murray’s article, “Who Is an Indian? Who is a Negro? Virginia Indian in the World War II Draft.”

[9] “James A. Adkins,” Virginia World War II History Commission, Separation notices and reports, 1942-1950. Accession 23573. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

[10] “James A. Adkins,” Virginia World War II History Commission.

[11] National Archives at St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, WWII Draft Registration Cards for Virginia 10/16/1940-03/31/1947, Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147, Box 3.

[12] “James A. Adkins,” Virginia World War II History Commission.

[13] National Archives at St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, WWII Draft Registration Cards for Virginia, 10/16/1940-03/31/1947, Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147, Box 181.

[14] Social Security application, Social Security Administration, Office of Earnings Operation, Baltimore, Md.

[15] “Allison Grant Custalow,” Find a Grave, accessed on October 5, 2023,*v93rbr*_gcl_au*MTAwMjc5OTA0MC4xNjkyNzE1MDU1.

[16] “James A. Bradby,” Virginia World War II History Commission, Separation notices and reports, 1942-1950. Accession 23573. State government records collections, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

[17] “James A. Bradby,” Virginia World War II History Commission.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Virginia, U.S. Death Records, 1912-2014 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT., USA; Operations Inc., 2015.

[21] Smithsonian – National Museum of the American Indian- National Native American Veterans Memorial: Honoring the Military Service of Native Americans’ website.

[22] NPR, “New Memorial on the National Mall honors Native veterans who served the nation.” November 11, 2022.

Ashley Craig

Community Engagement & Partnerships, Former Community Outreach Specialist

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