Honoring National Aboriginal Veterans Day

More than 7,000 First Nations people from Canada served in the First World War, Second World War, and the Korean War.

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Kainai Recruits of the St. Paul’s Anglican Boarding School, July 1912. Glenbow Archives NA-1811–44.

On November 8, 1994, National Aboriginal Veterans Day was established by the federal government to honour the thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis who served in the world wars, the Korean War, and later conflicts. The day is often marked by remembrance of those Indigenous soldiers who were killed in the wars, but also acknowledges that veteran benefits and rights were unevenly distributed to the survivors.

More than 7,000 First Nations people from Canada served in the First World War, Second World War, and the Korean War.

Dr. Will Pratt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and Classics, researches the 29 men from the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta that served in the First World War. “I look at the impact of the wars on the home front and on the First Nations soldiers that returned to Treaty 7 territory,” Will says. “Each Indigenous group has their own unique stories of the war, unique interactions with local officials, and individuals had their own unique reasons for signing up. I’m trying to disentangle them from the national narrative.”

According to Will, the Department of Indian Affairs and militia were uncertain about whether they were actively going to recruit Indigenous soldiers for The Great War — at first, the official policy was that they would not. Some individuals like Albert Mountain Horse of the Kainai (Blood) First Nation, who is regarded as one of the earliest First Nations people to enlist, managed to sign up and head overseas despite government discouragement. Albert died of his wounds in 1915.

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Albert Mountain Horse in a pre-war militia uniform. ca. 1914. Photographer Unknown.

There were several motivations for First Nations peoples in Treaty 6, 7, and 8 to enlist in war, often tied to existing ideas of warrior culture.

Will says that for graduates of restrictive residential schools, enlisting in The Great War was an opportunity to escape the doldrums of reserve life — for travel and adventure. “It’s a complex situation,” Will says. “In one sense you might think that this was part of internalizing Euro-centric values, and that they were signing up out of British Patriotism or allegiance to the British Empire. But in some of the memoir literature from Indigenous soldiers, you can see that there are Indigenous notions of being a warrior and Indigenous ideals.”

Dr. James Dempsey, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, explains that going to war was one way of gaining status in their community as warriors. “Once moved onto reserves, most avenues for males to gain status were eliminated. Intertribal warfare was not allowed. Then the war comes along and, they didn’t necessarily know what they were getting into, but they get to go to war.”

James agrees that, through interviews with veterans, there is evidence to suggest that some men enlisted to “escape the boredom of reserve life.” A third motivation, he thinks, is loyalty to the British Empire. “For Indigenous people in [what is called Alberta,] there was a relationship with the Crown through the treatises, and while it wasn’t always the best I think that was one of the reasons for many of these people to enlist.”

Mike Mountain Horse explicitly mentions that he wanted to fight in the war as a means of revenge against the central powers for killing his brother Albert. “These revenge cycles that happened around warfare are much like what happened generations before,” Will says. “Mountain Horse writes of Indigenous ceremonial prayer and small sacrifices made to the creator by his fellow soldiers during the conflict. There are accounts of incorporating Indigenous regalia — soldiers in military uniform with elk tooth necklaces. There’s value in military exploits that is in keeping with the warrior values you see in Plains Indigenous cultures.”

Traditional and Euro-Canadian concepts were often amalgamated during the wars, and Indigenous soldiers often deployed both Indigenous ideas alongside notions of British military imperialism in their understanding of the war. Mike Mountain Horse had a traditional story robe created to record the stories of his military service. In pre-colonial days, a story robe was a way to demonstrate one’s feats of bravery and risk.

“War robes were worn to display achievements,” James says. “Here was a way to proclaim your warrior status to others visually. The robes would be worn for special occasions to show off your status within your community. A lot of it is about status. Even to this day, during the grand opening or parade at the beginning of pow wows, they always invite, and try to have, a veteran to carry one of the flags. There’s that community view of veterans being warriors.”

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Dr. James Dempsey discussing Mike Mountain Horse, with the story robe in the background. Still courtesy War Stories 1917 Documentary

Mike’s robe had visuals of him overtaking machine guns and depictions of modern artillery, and used illustrations of spiked helmets to indicate the German soldiers.

In 1995, the first wreaths to honour Indigenous veterans were laid at the National War Memorial. “As a kid going to Remembrance Day celebrations there would only be two or three wreaths,” James recalls. “But now there is recognition of different groups, including Aboriginals, and the military has been recognizing that too.”