The Spanish-American War erupted less than a decade after the brutal massacre of Lakota tribal members by the Seventh United States Cavalry Regiment at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Despite a long history of mistreatment by white Americans, Natives from several tribes joined the patriotic rush to arms in 1898. Most conspicuously, they served with distinction as medical assistants and as soldiers in the First United States Cavalry Volunteer Regiment. Valor in combat earned them a measure of long-overdue respect. Unfortunately, the full benefits of citizenship in the nation they served remained denied to them for more than two subsequent decades. Worse, the conflict with Filipino nationalists which began in February 1899 reinforced racist attitudes among United States officers whose prior service had included warfare against the tribes of western North America
By 1898, Indians had played crucial, if usually unsung, roles throughout American military history. Earlier American wars had sparked profound dissension among various tribes, whose members nonetheless served their respective sides valiantly. The Revolutionary War dissolved the Iroquois Confederation of New York, as five of its six constituent tribes (if not individual tribal members) officially sided with the British or declared neutrality, and one, the Oneida, allied with the rebellious colonists. Other tribes, including the Stockbridges of Massachusetts and the Pequots of Connecticut, contributed men to the American struggle for independence. The second Anglo-American war, which began in 1812, likewise divided the involved tribes, and exacerbated armed strife within the Creek Tribe of Alabama. Fifty years later, the Civil War tore the Cherokee Tribe (which had been brutally moved from Georgia to Oklahoma in 1838-1839) asunder. Officially sought to serve as scouts and light infantry, several individual Natives earned special laurels in these conflicts: the pro-British Mohawk Joseph Brant during the Revolutionary War, the pro-American Seneca Red Jacket and the pro-British Shawnee Tecumseh during the War of 1812, Seneca tribal member Ely Parker, who served as General Ulysses S. Grant’s personal assistant during the Civil War, and Cherokee tribal member Stand Watie, who attained the rank of Brigadier General and was the last Confederate officer to surrender to Union forces in June 1865, two months after Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston capitulated.
Through the Civil War, United States Army officers had usually recruited Indians as ad hoc contract soldiers for localized combat operations and reconnaissance missions. Although Congress authorized the President to enlist up to one thousand Natives to serve as scouts in 1866, most Army officers continued to rely on temporary, informal alliances. As had been the case prior to the Civil War, the American commanders in the late nineteenth century frequently exploited inter- and intratribal rivalries and enmities for military advantage. In his pursuit of the Apache leader Geronimo in the mid-1880s, General George Crook described this strategy as using “diamond dust to polish a diamond.”
Cessation of armed conflict between whites and Native Americans in the United States after the massacre at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890 effected a change in the Army’s policy. Seeking to culturally assimilate Indians through military training, the Army issued a general directive on 19 March 1891 which reduced the number of Native scouts to 150 and also set a quota of fifty-five tribal members to serve as enlisted regulars in Troop L of selected cavalry regiments and Company I of selected infantry regiments. However, due to linguistic barriers, simmering racial animosities, and federal financial retrenchment during the depression of the 1890s, these units were disbanded within six years. Most of these soldiers then returned to civilian life, though several remained in uniform as scouts.
Toward the end of the 1890s, tribal women also gradually entered the armed forces as nurses. The Daughters of the American Revolution Hospital Corps contracted four Lakota nuns, Susan Bordeaux (the Reverend Mother M. Anthony), Ella Clark (the Reverend Sister M. Gertrude), Anna B. Pleets (the Reverend Mother M. Bridget), and Josephine Two Bears (the Reverend Sister M. Joseph) from the Congregation of American Sisters of Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Though they lacked formal medical education, they had been receiving practical training in local homes and hospitals under the tutelage of Reverend Francis Craft since 1895. When the war with Spain began in the spring of 1898, Craft offered the four nuns to the War Department to serve as nurses. During the ensuing conflict, they tended sick and wounded soldiers in Camp Cuba Libre in Jacksonville, Florida and Camp Onward in Savannah, Georgia. There, they lived in tents and worked for $30 a month. According to the contemporary United States Army Paymaster’s Manual, they were paid relatively well. Newly recruited hospital matrons attached to military headquarters generally earned $10 per month. In contrast, male hospital stewards earned $45 per month. For them, pay rates increased with experience and specialization. Less fortunate was Delia Randall, a Shoshone from Idaho’s Fort Hall Reservation and graduate of the New Haven (Connecticut) Training School for Nurses. Twenty-five years of age in 1898, she offered her assistance to the United States Army. However, “the requirements call(ed) for nurses between the ages of thirty and fifty,” and she was turned down.
Meanwhile, veterans of the late nineteenth-century wars against Indian tribes filled the upper echelons of the United States Army. In 1876, after the battle of Little Bighorn (25 June 1876), Nelson Miles defeated Lakota leader Crazy Horse and chased Sitting Bull into Canada. The following year, he forced the surrender of Nez Percé leader Chief Joseph. Promoted to Major-General in 1890, Miles oversaw the suppression of the Lakota Ghost Dance Uprising, which degenerated into the tragedy of 29 December. Despite his reputation as a persistent foe of Native resistance, Miles nevertheless sympathized (to an extent) with the indigenous experience, albeit not without considerable racial superciliousness. In his Personal Recollections, first published in 1896, Miles offered this commentary on “Indian character”:
The first and, in view of the savage character now generally attributed to him, most striking fact to be noted of the American Indian before he degenerated through contact with the white man, and anterior to the race war that was waged for centuries before his final overthrow, was the dignity, hospitality, and gentleness of his demeanor toward strangers and toward his fellow savages, his cordial welcome of the newcomers to his shore and home. What was it that changed all this and caused that race war, so relentlessly prosecuted and so heroically contested to the bitter end? Not entirely treachery on the part of the Indian, but also the inexorable needs of a higher civilization, too often in haughty contempt pushing its conquests and gratifying its desires regardless of justice, plighted faith, and the finer and purer instincts and emotions that activate and move the best elements of our nature.
By 1898, Miles attained the rank of Commanding General of the United States Army.
Adna R. Chaffee, Sr. was another distinguished Union Army veteran who participated in the suppression of the Western tribes in the decades after the Civil War. After defeating the Comanches in the battle of Painted Creek, Texas in March 1868, he assisted Miles against the Cheyennes in 1874. In the early 1880s, Chaffee bested the Apaches at the battle of Big Dry Wash, Arizona (July 1882) and accompanied General George Crook during his pursuit of the Apaches into Mexico on the Sierra Madre campaign of 1883. Finally, Chaffee co-commanded the 1886 expedition that led to the capture of Apache leader Geronimo. By the time of the Spanish-American War’s onset, he held the rank of Brigadier-General of Volunteers.
Chaffee’s immediate superior in the Cuban campaign of 1898, Henry Ware Lawton, had also acquired his professional reputation in the conflicts of the western states. Serving as a lieutenant in the Fourth Cavalry Regiment, he played a crucial role in the battle of Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, against the Comanches and Kiowas in September 1874. Though human fatalities were slight, Lawton oversaw the slaughter of over one thousand horses belonging to the hostile tribes, rendering them virtually immobile, and thus crippling their further resistance. Subsequently, Lawton joined Chaffee in the final campaigns against the Apaches in the early 1880s. In 1886, Lawton received primary credit for the capture of Geronimo. Twelve years later, he had attained the rank of Brigadier General.
Also in 1886, a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School (class of 1884) named Leonard Wood joined Miles’ unit as a contract surgeon with the rank of lieutenant. He served as the medical officer in the final pursuit of Geronimo. Wounded and ill during the arduous campaign (on 14 July 1886, he wrote to his mother, “The whole country is a mass of gigantic mountains through which we are laboriously working on the trail of the ever fleeing and never fighting Indian”), Wood earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, which he finally received in 1898. By then, he had served as personal physician to President Grover Cleveland, and was serving in the same capacity for President William McKinley.
Though he lacked military experience prior to 1898, Theodore Roosevelt also encountered Indians as a rancher in the Dakota Territory in the mid-1880s, as an historian of the white settlement of North America, and as a reformist federal official. In the spring of 1885, he published his account of his ranching experiences in the Dakota Badlands to that point, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. Here, he displayed little sympathy for indigenous populations dispossessed of their land by Euro-American encroachment:
the past century, a good deal of sentimental nonsense has been
talked about our taking the Indians’ land. Now, I do not mean to say
for a moment that gross wrong has not been done to the Indians,
both by government and individuals, again and again…But as
regards taking the land, at least from the Western Indians, the
simple truth is that the latter never had any real ownership at all…
The Indians should be treated in just such a way that we treat the
white settlers. Give each his little claim; if, as would generally
happen, he declined this, why, then let him share the fate of the
thousands of white hunters and trappers who have lived on the
game that the settlement of the country has exterminated, and let
him, like these whites, perish from the face of the earth which he
That autumn, after establishing the Elkhorn Ranch in what is now North Dakota, Roosevelt and several fellow ranchers contended with incidents of arson committed by Natives protesting white use of ancestral tribal hunting grounds in the Badlands.
In his approach to the Indians whom the eighteenth-century European settlers of North America encountered, Roosevelt the historian was marginally kinder than Roosevelt the rancher. Between 1889 and 1896, he authored the four-volume Winning of the West, an epic account of white conquest and settlement of the United States between the Allegheny Mountains and the western boundaries of the Louisiana Territory from 1769 to 1807. Throughout, he extolled the pioneers’ forcible advancement of European culture, argued that “the most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages,” and derided the “warped, perverse, and silly morality” of those who supported the land claims of “a few scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they hold joint ownership.” Yet, Roosevelt hoped for the eventual assimilation of the Indians into Euro-American culture, rather than their extinction. Further, he praised individual tribal leaders for their statesmanship, integrity, and battlefield courage. Nor was he blind to the sad history of white persecution of Natives. In his account of the massacre of nearly one hundred pacifist, Christian Indians by a renegade American militia unit in Sandusky, Ohio at the end of the Revolutionary War, Roosevelt denounced the soldiers as “white butchers,” and exclaimed that “even now, a just man’s blood boils in his veins at the remembrance” of this atrocity. As he remarked to members of the Indian Rights Association in 1892, “I have seen both red men and white men pretty near to the bone, and where they are both unpromisingly raw, and I have found on occasion that the so-called civilized white man is only a little less savage than the Indian.”
During roughly the same period of time (1889-1895), Roosevelt served on the federal Civil Service Commission during the Benjamin Harrison administration and part of the second Grover Cleveland administration. Though he directed most of his enormous energies to fighting political patronage within the Postal Service, he also closely monitored federal Indian policy, forging ties with advocates of the Native population whom he would later consult as President. Several of these individuals blamed the Wounded Knee tragedy on the “Home Rule” spoils system, by which federal Indian Service personnel owed their positions to political connections, rather than professional qualifications. In February 1891, Roosevelt and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas J. Morgan, successfully pressed President Harrison to bring the Indian Service under the jurisdiction of the Civil Service Commission. Nearly seven hundred Indian Service staff positions came within the Commission’s purview two months later. The following year, Roosevelt accompanied Herbert Welsh, founder of the Indian Rights Association, on an extensive inspection tour of six western Indian reservations and their federally-created schools. For Roosevelt, these schools, especially boarding schools, were crucial to the process of detribalizing Native youths and vocationally training them for agricultural livelihoods. Notably, he opposed “permitting too many youths to waste time learning trades they would have no opportunity to practice on returning to their families.”
Though he admired the United States, exiled Cuban nationalist leader José Martí criticized its treatment of its indigenous populations. In October 1885, reform-minded United States citizens and public officials re-convened in Mohonk, New York, to discuss ways of relieving the Indians’ socio-economic plight. They addressed the problems of corrupt federal administrators, the inadequacies of government-operated reservation schools, and the perceived need to abolish tribal communal land ownership in favor of individually-owned parcels. These initiatives fostered the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887, which divided reservation lands among individual Natives who renounced their tribal affiliations. Writing on the 1885 session for the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación, Martí hailed its participants as “men and women of action…not breathless philanthropists who see Indians as seraphic creatures just because they are Indians, or butterfly-like politicians who only pause momentarily on the surface of things.” He praised their recognition that the dispossessed Natives’ alleged proclivities to “ignoble idleness” were not inherent, but resulted from “a bad system of government,” which for decades had deliberately denied them opportunities for advancement:
We do not give (the Indian) work to do for himself, work that gladdens and elevates…We instill in him the habit of dependence, we habituate him to a life of idleness, without other needs or pleasures than those of naked primitive man; we deprive him of the means for procuring for himself what he needs, and force him to ask the government agent for everything, head lowered and hat in hand…Without work, without property, without hope, without native land, with no family delights other than the purely physical ones, what else can the Indians on the reservations be but irritable, lazy, sensual men, born from fathers who saw their own fathers, pipe and soul extinguished, squatting on the ground and weeping for (their) lost nation?
In 1888, Martí translated into Spanish Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona, which vividly depicted the Natives’ misery, and re-published it at his own expense. Subsequent tragic events impelled him to recant much of his earlier optimism. Six years later, in March 1894, Martí surmised that “not only have the elements of diverse origin and tendency from which the United States was created failed…to merge, but their forced coexistence is exacerbating and accentuating their primary differences and transforming the unnatural federation into a harsh state of violent conquest.” On 19 May 1895, early in Cuba’s final struggle for independence from Spain, this perceptive commentator fell in battle to Spanish bullets.
As the Cuban war deteriorated relations between the United States and Spain between 1895 and 1898, students at the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania followed and discussed the relevant events with keen interest. This institution, the first federally-supported school for Natives to be established off of a reservation, had been founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt (1840-1924). Pratt, a devout Baptist and former cavalry officer who had commanded a unit of African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” and Indian scouts, believed (as Roosevelt did) that the best means of assimilating Natives into Euro-American society was removing the youths from the reservations, and immersing them in white culture. For this purpose, Pratt persuaded the federal government to give him an abandoned cavalry barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, far removed from any reservation. Students of both genders came primarily from the Great Plains tribes, particularly the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Apache. On campus, school life closely resembled military life, with uniforms and strictly enforced disciplinary codes. Also, students could communicate only in English. Although the curriculum emphasized basic academics and vocational training, students also operated a printing press that published a weekly school newspaper titled Indian Helper. On 29 March 1898, one of Carlisle’s classes debated the merits of declaring war on Spain. As the Indian Helper reported the subsequent Friday, “The entire list of speakers wanted to be on the affirmative side, and it shows that peace principles have been well taught in the class and that both sides have been thoroughly studied, for Edgar Rickard and Myron Moses spoke in favor of non-declaration of war, when it was directly in opposition to their feelings.” (The peace advocates won the debate.) The outbreak of hostilities heightened this interest. On 6 May 1898, five days after the American naval victory at Manila Bay, the Indian Helper boasted that one of Carlisle’s students corrected a white man who had mistakenly thought that the Philippines were located in the Caribbean Sea.
When the Spanish-American War began, Congress authorized President William McKinley on 22 April 1898 to assemble specific units from company to regimental size, "possessing special qualifications, from the nation at large." Under the aegis of this Volunteer Bill, Secretary of War Russell Alger stipulated that three volunteer cavalry regiments were to be formed "exclusively of frontiersmen possessing special qualifications as horsemen and marksmen." A prewar letter to McKinley, dated 2 April, in which Governor Myron T. McCord of the Arizona Territory offered to raise a regiment, suggested certain additional “special qualifications” shared by potential recruits from that region: self-reliance, inurement to camp life, ability to understand the Spanish language, and better resistance to tropical weather conditions. The First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, known to history as the “Rough Riders,” was to be comprised of troops raised from Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. The Second Regiment, commanded by Judge Jay L. Torrey, was to incorporate soldiers from Torrey’s state of Wyoming. The Third, formed in the Dakota Territory, was placed under the command of that region’s Adjutant General, Melvin Grigsby. (In the ensuing conflict, neither Torrey’s “Rocky Mountain Riders” nor “Grigsby’s Cowboys” were to see action.)
Despite decades of oppression, Natives from several tribes of the southwestern United States answered this call, along with their white counterparts. For many, wartime military service was a long-standing family tradition. Akin to their white comrades, they likely also sought adventure. In addition, some may have hoped that they would be able to use their experiences in the armed forces to obtain better subsequent socio-economic status (as had several fortunate African-Americans and Natives in earlier wars). Newspapers soon trumpeted apocryphal reports indicating that the "Wild West" showman William "Buffalo Bill" Cody planned to mobilize 30,000 veteran scouts and Indian fighters, and that six hundred Lakotas were ready to fight the Spaniards. At the end of April, Troop Captains William “Bucky” O’Neill and James McClintock screened the flood of eager applicants in Arizona for the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Formally mustered on 30 April, two hundred Arizonans reported for duty at the regiment’s training grounds, Camp Wood in San Antonio, Texas. Other officers culled recruits for the unit from neighboring territories. 340 men came from the New Mexico Territory. Among them were two brothers, Joseph and Frank Brito of the Yaquí Tribe, who became privates in Troop H of the New Mexico contingent. From Indian Territory came 170 men, under the command of Allyn Capron, Jr. Among them were Thomas Isbell, of partial Cherokee descent, and William Pollock, a full-blooded Pawnee. Writing from Camp Wood to fellow Pawnee Samuel Townsend, Pollock took pride in his bold decision to take up arms, seeing it as a continuation of a family tradition:
At last I am going to see civilized people fight against half-barbarians as they term Spaniards. Sometimes it seems hard, but I have put myself thus far and will stay with it. I am not going to predict any or do any boasting, but I’ll only say that in the memory of our brave fathers I will try and be like one of them, who used to stand single-handed against the foes. Being the only full-blooded Indian in this troop, I am somewhat a conspicuous character. Some folks at home thought I was very foolish to put myself into such a situation where dangers of all kinds are inevitable. If my mother was yet living, I would not take any such step; my brothers, they are all men and will not worry about me, but will rather be somewhat proud of me even should I fail at my duty as a soldier under the service of the U. S. Government.
In his postwar account of the unit’s experiences, The Rough Riders, Theodore Roosevelt praised Pollock as “one of the gamest fighters and best soldiers in the regiment.” During the climactic battle for the San Juan Heights on 1 July, Roosevelt remarked that Pollock was “among the men whom (he) noticed as leading in the charges and always being nearest the enemy.”
After spending the month of May training in San Antonio, the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment embarked on a four-day railway journey to Tampa, Florida, on 30 May. In an interview with historian Dale Walker, Frank Brito many years later recalled the arduous trip as a “nightmare”:
We had to stop ever so often to unload the (horses) to feed and water them, then load them up again. Those old coal-burners poured black smoke into both the stock cars and passenger cars, and when we got a chance to get off, we all looked like we could play in a minstrel show.
Nicknamed “Monte” by Roosevelt (short for Montezuma), Brito remembered the Lieutenant-Colonel as a “wonderful man.”
Arriving in Tampa on 2 June, the regiment learned to its dismay that only two-thirds of its strength would participate in the Cuban campaign. Worse, the members of this cavalry unit who would see action would have to leave their horses behind. Troops C, H, I, and M remained in Tampa to care for the animals. As privates in Troop H, the Brito brothers spent that summer battling malaria and dysentery along with their comrades, some of whom deserted. Years later, Frank Brito still viewed this fate with bitterness:
It was no honor to stay behind. Tampa was a hell-hole. We were there, waiting, thinking we could get over to Cuba, or maybe Puerto Rico, and nothing happened…We were there over two months, with nothing to do but get sick and get mad.
A member of the regiment’s Troop L, Thomas Isbell participated heroically in the fight for Cuba. On 24 June 1898, he was one of four men selected by Sergeant Hamilton Fish to serve as “point” for the advancing American column. In that day’s engagement with Spanish forces at Las Guásimas, Isbell shot one Spaniard, but was wounded seven times in the space of a half hour. Roosevelt later asserted that this Cherokee “was among the first to shoot and be shot at.” Noting that Isbell had refused to leave the front lines despite his injuries until blood loss forced his retreat, Roosevelt commented admiringly, “The man’s wiry toughness was as notable as his courage.”
Carlisle alumnus Joseph Dubray, though too late for the Cuban campaign, joined the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment that summer because “(he) thought it was (his) duty to enlist as a soldier of the United States and fight for (his) country as a good citizen of it.” Sailing for Cuba from Camp Alger in Virginia on 5 July, Dubray witnessed “the last firing of the gun-boats off Morro Castle, and rejoiced with the others on his ship at the surrender of Santiago” on 17 July. Subsequently, he took part in the invasion of Puerto Rico (25 July – 11 August 1898), “where he had duty to perform which carried him between the lines and where bullets were flying thick and fast.”
Along with Joseph and Frank Brito, many of these courageous patriots enlisted in the armed forces, only to spend the duration of the war stateside. In 1898, Victor M. Locke, a 22-year-old Oklahoman of partial Choctaw descent (his Tennessean white father had served in the Confederate Army under Joseph Wheeler), enlisted in the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment, but was fated to serve only “in various camps in America.”
Tribal members contributed and sacrificed significantly during the brief war with Spain, and would continue to do so through subsequent American armed conflicts. Oklahoman John Alley, himself a veteran from 1898, later noted that, of the thirty-four battle casualties among Oklahoma’s troops incurred during the Cuban campaign, the Indian Territory component of the future state claimed more than half.
From the Carlisle School, Richard Henry Pratt asserted that the Native wartime experience vindicated his approach to educating and assimilating them. In his annual report to the Department of the Interior submitted on 28 September 1898, he stated,
Early in the year, when the first rumors of war electrified our country, our young men were eager to prove their loyalty to the Government, and expressed their wish to enlist should there be a call for volunteer troops. The military government and drill used at the school especially qualified them for such service… The interest they show by asking to take an active part in the grave operations, even to laying down their lives if need be, suggests that if in time of war such a oneness of interest is aroused, then in time of peace, universal enlistment can be made in an intelligent and industrious service for the welfare of the nation by adding their energies to its growth of culture and industry.
Pratt and others who believed that the Natives’ socio-economic salvation lay in cultural assimilation under the tutelage of honest and qualified federal personnel hailed Roosevelt’s ascension to the Presidency in September 1901. The new President’s well-established reformist credentials, along with his respect for individual Natives, which his combat experience reinforced, portended a bold new era in the government’s treatment of the nation’s indigenous populations.
However, President Roosevelt’s Indian policies, while often enlightened, were nevertheless curtailed by political realities. As he completed what would have been McKinley’s second term, Roosevelt, eager to be elected in his own right, and already pursuing audacious initiatives elsewhere in domestic policy, was reluctant to alienate key Republicans on Native issues. Victory in the 1904 election emboldened him. In early 1905, he named Francis E. Leupp as the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs. A decade earlier, while on the Civil Service Commission, Roosevelt had frequently consulted Leupp, then the Indian Rights Association’s representative in Washington. As Commissioner, Leupp created an employment bureau for Southwestern Natives, and, in April 1905, promulgated a new “Indian policy” which sought to train youths in farming and ranching, grant Natives of sufficient talent and ambition access to “the best in American education,” and allow the law of supply and demand to determine the number of businesses on reservations (thereby introducing the Indians therein to Euro-American capitalism). Roosevelt and Leupp, unlike their predecessors, also strove to preserve parts of indigenous culture and history. In the summer of 1905, Stephen M. Barrett, the local school superintendent at Fort Sill in Oklahoma obtained permission from Geronimo to record the imprisoned Apache leader’s autobiography. When the officer in charge of the fort’s prisoners attempted to quash this project, Barrett successfully appealed to the President. (Not even Roosevelt, though, was able to persuade national publishers to purchase the manuscript; in the end, Barrett brought it to a local publisher.) Simultaneously, Leupp proposed that federally-operated Native schools include courses on tribal histories and cultures. In his report to Secretary of the Interior Allen Hitchcock, he argued, “The last thing that ought to be done with the youth whom we are trying to indoctrinate with self-respect, is to teach them to be ashamed of their ancestry.”
However, there remained limits to federal Indian policy. White encroachment onto Native lands continued at an alarming pace. In 1906, Texas Congressman James H. Stephens proposed a bill that arranged for the purchase of 480,000 acres of Comanche land in Oklahoma at a rate of $1.50 per acre. Roosevelt, seeking to “safeguard the welfare of the Indians,” refused to sign it. He did, nevertheless, endorse a revised version which raised the price to $5 per acre. As historian William T. Hagan notes, “Roosevelt could sweeten the pill for the Indians, but they still had to take it.” Finally, suffrage, the most fundamental right of United States citizenship, remained denied to the continent’s original inhabitants. Not until 1924, after yet another generation of Natives had shed their blood in wartime service to their country, did they finally receive this privilege.
To make matters worse, many American leaders and commentators still failed to value indigenous cultures and ethnicities. As the Philippine-American War became a protracted, frustrating guerrilla conflict, American Army commanders whose prior experience had included the final confrontations with the Natives of the continental United States reverted to their earlier mentality. Once again, they dehumanized their adversaries, and exploited inter-tribal rivalries for military advantage, using Macabebes as scouts in the fighting on the main island of Luzon. As late as 1916, journalist William O’Connell McGeehan wrote an article that praised the Native influence on American military tactics (including using the topographical features of the battlefield for concealment from the enemy, and deploying in skirmish lines), but argued that this was the only indigenous legacy of consequence: “(the Indian’s) music does not amount to much, and his folklore is not worth preserving.”
Despite these persistent societal shortcomings, Natives continued to serve in their country’s armed forces with courage and distinction. Frank Brito’s brother Joseph fought against the Filipinos, and was killed in battle. The four Lakota nurses were each awarded the “Cross of the Order of Spanish-American War Nurses,” and were honorably discharged on 1 February 1899. They then worked in an orphanage in postwar Cuba. One of them, Susan Bordeaux, died of pneumonia the following October. Although she received a military funeral, efforts to inter her remains at Arlington National Cemetery came to naught.
Students and alumni from Carlisle maintained a significant presence in the Army, as well. In November 1899, a veteran of the Philippine-American War named Abram L. Mumper visited the Carlisle campus and spoke candidly with the students operating the printing press. According to an article appearing in The Indian Helper on 17 November, “Mr. Mumper believes there will be no Waterloo or Gettysburg, but there will be a system of warfare continued for a long time which will take thousands of men and money to conquer.” Despite this grim (and prescient) prognosis, Major William Ennis, the recruiting officer in Harrisburg, visited the school the following month, and was able to enlist several older male students who later served in infantry, cavalry, and artillery units. One Carlisle graduate, William Colombe, served in Troop I of the Fourth Cavalry Regiment. At San Mateo on 19 December 1899, he witnessed the death by a sniper’s bullet of the senior American field officer, General Henry W. Lawton. (In an interesting twist of irony, this captor of the Apache leader Geronimo was felled by a Filipino named Geronimo.) Writing back to his former classmates and teachers, Colombe commented,
General Lawton was killed about twenty yards from where I was shooting at a man who was shooting from a tree, and I think that was the very man who killed the General. But we kept shooting until he fell from the tree. I don’t think that he will live to tell the tale to his friends that he killed our good General. It is hard on this Island. Sometimes we do not get anything to eat for three or four days. I don’t understand why the Filipinos don’t quit fighting, because so many of them get killed in every fight that they go into, and not many are lost on our side.
In 1898, as in previous and subsequent armed conflicts, members of
American Indian tribes proved themselves to be men and women of valor
and honor in serving a nation that had long oppressed its indigenous
populations. The relatively enlightened federal policies of the
Progressive Era finally laid the foundations for a more constructive
relationship between the two sides.
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