(WOMENSENEWS)--Native American women have been supporting the United States in wartime since the American Revolution. Little has been documented about them, historians say, and thousands of their stories have been lost or forgotten.
Now, an organization, with the help of retired Lt. Colonel Brenda Finnicum, is working to gather the names and stories of Native American women who served in U.S. armed forces for a memorial exhibit opening in Washington, D.C. in the fall.
According to Finnicum, the United States Defense Department tallied a total of 2,726 Native American women currently serving in the armed forces, including the Coast Guard, as of last March 2001. Finnicum, a retired army nurse and member of the Lumbee Nation, has dedicated her retirement to locating the Native American women veterans.
Finnicum says historians estimate that 800 Native American women served in the armed forces in the past. "But I don't believe that is correct," she said, having served over 20 years in the Army Nurse Corps. "When you are talking about women who served during World War I and II, the classification system of race was limited to three choices: black, white, and other. Native American women and men were not counted as individuals; they were passed on as white. So many Indians were not even correctly classified."
Tom Anderson, a researcher in the Office for the Deputy Assistant for the Secretary of Defense, agreed, noting that "government officials do not have any concrete statistics for living or dead Native American women veterans."
The confusion is compounded by the reluctance of many Native Americans to identify themselves as such. "They could pass themselves off as white," said Finnicum, who says she knew women who concealed their identity in the armed forces for years.
"Women who hid their Indian identity make it even more difficult to trace what women from which tribes served in battles," she added. "Many women are not registered by tribal nation, so you have to really know Indian family names," she said, "and read the Indian newspapers."
'These Women Felt Compelled to Serve This Nation'
One of the oldest documented cases of Native American women serving the United States military is that of four Lakota nuns from South Dakota who worked as nurses in Cuba during the Spanish Civil War. Their story has been documented by historians at the Women in Military Service for America's memorial and by Finnicum for an article she wrote for the Indian Country Today newspaper.
During World War I and World War II, Native American women served in a variety of roles, from nurses to pilot's assistants in the Air Force. The Korean and Vietnam Wars brought fewer women to the services, but Native American women continued to be active in the medical corps. Native American women more recently served in Desert Storm.
Native American women veterans have been urged by historians and activists alike to register with the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington. An exhibit scheduled to open at the memorial in October is expected to draw new attention to their contributions to the United States.
"It's a tremendous challenge to document all of these women, but we are trying to develop what we know," said Judith Bellafaire, the memorial's chief historian and curator. Historians have documented the efforts of 111 such women, but Bellafaire says thousands of stories are still missing. Those working on the exhibition are especially eager to find recent Native American women veterans or Native American women who are still on active duty.
"We need to communicate the importance of these women to America," Bellafaire said. "They served a country, which didn't necessarily support Indians, yet these women felt compelled to serve this nation, anyway."
Both Bellafaire and Finnicum believe that many Native American women veterans will be missing from the records this Memorial Day and that an exhibit to honor their work and courage will only be fulfilled if the these women are found.
"It is important that these histories get documented and told," Finnicum said. "Indian people are never mentioned in the statistics. We are uncounted, and when that happens, your voice remains unheard."
Maya Dollarhide is a freelance journalist based in New York.
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