Back from War: Telling Native Veterans’ Stories after Vietnam

John Little, PhD student in history and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts.

As US soldiers returned home from fighting the Vietnam War, they faced numerous challenges on the home front. Physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, limited GI benefits, and infamously poor treatment from opponents of the war made it difficult to resume life as a civilian.

American Indian veterans were no exception to these struggles, but they did experience something few other veterans met when they returned to their communities: support, rather than scorn.

“Vietnam is interesting because it was such an unpopular war,” said John Little, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “In Indian Country, though, Native veterans are really put on a pedestal. You’d potentially given your life for your community, and that’s acknowledged when you go home.”

Little, a fourth-year PhD student in history and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts, is building his dissertation around Native American veterans’ experiences during and after the Vietnam War—how they were viewed, perceived, and treated, both on the front lines and at home. Through his research, he aims to provide new perspectives on this piece of history, which has often omitted Native accounts.

It was during his time as a master’s student at the University of South Dakota that Little first began researching the subject, using a series of recorded interviews from the South Dakota Oral History Archives with Native Vietnam veterans from the 70s, 80s, and 90s as a basis for his master’s thesis. As he began to pursue his PhD at the U of M, however, he saw an opportunity to expand on that work and look further into how veterans were honored and acknowledged in Native American culture. For many, fighting in wars is a tradition that has been carried on through lineage, with Vietnam veterans’ relatives having fought in the Korean War, World War 2, and World War 1.

A lot of Native veterans told stories of how they, like other veterans, faced insults and ire when they stepped off the plane after returning from Vietnam. Once they arrived home to their Native communities and reservations, however, they were celebrated. Their communities sang honor songs for them and praised them at banquets, powwows, and local events. That positive reinforcement, Little believes, helped Native veterans in working through their injuries and trauma to resume their lives in the civilian world.

“For Native people, you see a lot of veterans coming to their communities and pushing tribal sovereignty, helping with health care, and helping with education on their reservations and communities,” he said. “While some were no doubt struggling with PTSD and other issues like that, they were still building up their communities. That’s something I’ve been trying to highlight.”

While there are a number of histories out there on Native Americans in the military from the World Wars, such as accounts of the Navajo code-talkers, fewer accounts exist on their experiences in Vietnam. Much of what does build upon stereotypes about Native people, Little said, noting that soldiers often treated their Native American comrades as “super soldiers,” assuming they were intrinsically connected with the natural world and could track enemies or spot landmines in difficult terrain.

“They were fighting on two fronts: they were battling racism and stereotypes, while also fighting for the US Army,” Little said. “I think that’s something that ends up being very prominent in the work, because that’s what the Veterans are saying in their interviews.”

A History through Many Lenses

In approaching his research, Little is exploring five forms of history primarily related to the Lakota/Dakota peoples. The first is written historical accounts from archives, though many of these come from sources like federal agencies that reinforce stereotypes and assimilation narratives.

To ensure Native perspectives are well represented, Little is drawing on a larger collection of oral histories than he had for his master’s thesis. New interviews with Native Vietnam veterans, conducted recently as part of a Ken Burns documentary project on the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and a few original interviews Little himself is conducting, will help show how veterans’ perspectives on the war have changed over the years.

Similarly, exploring autobiographies and biographies of Native veterans will give Little an opportunity to look beyond veterans’ experiences in Vietnam to see how the war affected the trajectory of their whole lives.

“The autobiographies have really changed the conversation and made me think a lot differently about how to approach this,” he said.

In his research, Little also delved into literature, exploring books written by Native veterans. One of the most prominent was by the late Jim Northrup, an Ojibwe resident of Minnesota, who wrote about his experiences in and after Vietnam. Little is also exploring the work of non-veteran Native authors writing about what it was like to see veterans return to their communities after the war.

Finally, Little’s dissertation will examine how music and dancing have been used not only to celebrate veterans, but to continue Native traditions. Traditional Native music, previously banned by the federal government in the 20th century, was one way Native communities would celebrate returning veterans. They defended the choice by pointing out that any ban on celebrating veterans would be unpatriotic, Little said, leading to a revitalization and continuation of songs, dances, and other elements of traditional Native culture.

New Frameworks for History

By this fall, Little aims to finish his dissertation and begin his new role as director of the Indian University of North America summer program at Crazy Horse in South Dakota. The program, offered every summer by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation and in partnership with the University of South Dakota, helps Native American students make the transition from high school to college and gain college credits along the way. Little’s role will be to help expand the program to run year-round.

Looking back, he said his time at the U of M has expanded his interest in pushing back against stereotypes and bringing Native perspectives to light. Too often, histories about Native people are written without the author actually engaging with Native people, he said, and in doing so, they fail to acknowledge and respect significant aspects of Native people’s humanity—such as their culture, language, and community.

“History has not been kind to Native people in the past,” he said. “I think what a lot of people in Native studies are doing now is coming up with different frameworks to see history through.”

Rethinking and reframing history allows Native people to be seen as survivors instead of victims, Little added, and he hopes his dissertation will continue to contribute to this.