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Manitoba History: Review: L. James Dempsey, Warriors of the King: Prairie Indians in World War I

by Allison Campbell
University of Manitoba

Number 39, Spring / Summer 2000

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L. James Dempsey, Warriors of the King: Prairie Indians in World War I. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1999, 123 pp. Illus. ISBN 0-88977-101-14, $19.95.

Warriors of the King, by L. James Dempsey, is a study of Prairie Indians’ participation in World War I and the author is well-placed to write it. Many relatives were veterans and his father, Hugh Dempsey, has written a number of Native biographies. Dempsey presents Indian participation in some detail and argues that their contributions were not fairly recognized, especially concerning access to veteran programs. This poor treatment led to a new political awareness that developed the first pan-Indian political association, the League of Indians of Canada, to address this and other issues relating to Native rights.

Dempsey identifies three main reasons for the Native participation; ‘the Warrior ethic’ (over-emphasized and at times, dangerously close to the romantic stereotype of ‘Noble Savage’), loyalty to the Queen, and an opportunity for adventure. A large number enlisted, served overseas and earned medals. Bands donated to the Patriotic Fund and the Red Cross, and women sold knitting and other handicrafts to raise money.

The Native experience in W.W.I. is a complicated picture, and Dempsey acknowledges this. Records were poorly kept, Indian agents didn’t know whether Indians were exempt from service, Natives supported volunteering but not conscription, young men anxious to demonstrate their traditional values of bravery and strength faced respected elders speaking out against the same sacrifice. As the death rate overseas climbed, officials’ doubts about Native suitability for the military lessened. Participation would help to assimilate Natives, yet their apparent ‘wild-ness’ was thought to be what made them good soldiers, and there were arguments for and against all-Indian companies. The sources are also complicated, which Dempsey does not discuss. Contemporary newspapers (war propaganda?), Indian agents’ reports coloured by colonial assumptions, personal letters (censored? written to reassure?) and memories of nostalgic soldiers are all problematic.

An appendix of names, ages, band membership and brief summary of military action gives a personal dimension to the numbers, and helps them seem like other ‘ordinary’ soldiers, deserving of respect and a place in our memory. Photos further personalize events, and show the mix of Native culture with modern warfare.

For such a short book, there are too many similar excerpts, leaving less time to explain, expand or analyse issues. Dempsey asserts there was no prejudice against Natives in the military, but he finds many of them working as labourers in forestry and construction units. Europe was apparently a place where Native and non-Native soldiers were treated equally, but he offers no accounts of camaraderie or socializing. Native motivation—to see the world, fight the enemy—echoes non-Native reasons. Did these shared feelings bond the two groups? Did they differ between the cultures? Dempsey makes little mention of hardship—poor food, physical conditions, death of friends—and only hints that it may have been less of an issue for Natives. Since the discrimination that denied Natives access to veteran programs is such an important issue, Dempsey could have given more concrete examples beyond housing and land settlement. Were there also health, education, widow or survivor benefits denied to Indians?

Brief though it is, Warriors of the King illuminates another aspect of 20th century Native history, and therefore, Canadian history. It is an introduction, rather than a full treatment, of the topic. But it leaves the reader interested and hungry for more and it gives us questions and approaches to take into further studies regarding Native military involvement.

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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