Native American Heritage Month: a legacy of honor, commitment

Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker was the first American general to die in World War II. He was the first Native American in U.S. Army history to attain the rank of major general. Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma is named in his honor. He was a member of the Osage Nation. (Courtesy Photo)

Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker was the first American general to die in World War II. He was the first Native American in U.S. Army history to attain the rank of major general. Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma is named in his honor. He was a member of the Osage Nation. (Courtesy Photo)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- During the month of November we pay tribute to the contributions of Native Americans throughout history. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National Native American Heritage Month. To this day military installations across the nation celebrate the service that Native Americans have given to their country.

Native Americans have served our military proudly for over 200 years. During the War of 1812 Native Americans served as scouts using their unique skills and knowledge of the land to find enemy strongholds. This led the creation of the Indian Scouts by the U.S. Army in 1866 and they remained an integral part of our military intelligence until the 1900s. Let us not forget the Code Talkers that served during World War II who used their native language to encrypt vital military intelligence to not only secure mission success but save numerous lives. Marine Cpl. Ira Hayes, of the Pima Indian Tribe, is forever ingrained into history in the iconic photo of the flag rising at Iwo Jima. During the Korean War it is estimated that nearly 10,000 Native Americans served, including three eventual Medal of Honor recipients. During the Vietnam Era more than 42,000 Native Americans served throughout all branches. What is even more amazing about the Native Americans serving during this time when most members of the military were drafted, 90 percent of the Native Americans had volunteered to serve. Currently approximately 31,000 Native Americans serve our great nation. According to the census bureau more Native Americans serve the military than any other ethnic group.

To date, 28 Native Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor. One of the recipients resided not far from Grand Forks AFB in Wahpeton, N.D. Woodrow W. Keeble was born in 1917 in South Dakota, but moved to Wahpeton at a very young age so that his mother could teach at what is now called the Circle of Nations School. Keeble was very good at sports and was being recruited by the Chicago White Sox when he was called to duty during World War II. He served with the famous North Dakota 164th Infantry Regiment. His unit was the first Army unit to conduct offensive operations in Guadalcanal. Because of his great pitching arm he was able to throw grenades with amazing accuracy and named "one of the safest people to stand next to" by his peers. After the war Keeble returned to Wahpeton and taught at the school.

In 1951 the North Dakota Regiment was once again activated and sent to training for the Korean War. Keeble volunteered to go to the front lines stating that "Somebody has to teach these kids how to fight." He was quickly promoted to master sergeant and led the 1st Platoon. Operation Nomad-Polar was the last major offensive of the war. During the six worst days of the battle Keeble was wounded on October 15 and then again on October 17, 18 and 20. Doctors removed 83 pieces of shrapnel from Keeble and instructed him to stay behind because of his wounds. He refused to let his men push on without him and finished the mission. He would be awarded a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during this battle. He lived through the war and returned home to Wahpeton to once again teach at his beloved school. He died in 1982 and was buried in Sisseton, S.D. For 57 years his family and fellow soldiers fought to have his Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Keeble would die before seeing this happen.  On March 3, 2008, the struggle came to an end and this great warrior was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Finding direct contributions to the United States Air Force is difficult because unlike other ethnic groups, Native Americans were not segregated in the military. One Native American that did have a great impact on the Air Force was Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker. Tinker grew up in Oklahoma as part of the Osage Nation and commissioned into the Army in 1912. He began taking flying lessons in 1919 and was transferred to the Army Air Service in 1922. He was named the Commandant of the Air Service Advanced Flying School in 1927 and commanded various bomber units during the 1930s. He was named the commander of the 7th Air Force after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After taking command he was promoted to major general in 1942, the first Native American to obtain this rank. He would die in June of that same year leading a group of Liberator bombers during the Battle of Midway. He was the first American general to die in World War II. Soon after his death his home state of Oklahoma named the Oklahoma City Air Depot Tinker Field in honor of his service. This installation became Tinker Air Force Base in 1948 and still remains his namesake to this day. The Osage people honor Tinker and other veterans every year during their four-day In-Ion-shka celebration by singing a tribute song created specifically for him.

Throughout history Native Americans have served our country honorably. Many attribute this service to the warrior ethos embedded in Native Americans from birth. The sacrifices of these great Americans leave a legacy of honor and commitment to our military and we will continue to honor them not only in November but always.