By Martin Tuohy, National Museum of the American Sailor Archivist
As a Navy recruit in training, Joseph LaPrairie stood out at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in January 1920. Among the young trainees, Joseph LaPrairie was older – 31 years old, almost the same age as the chief petty officer in charge of his company. LaPrairie came from Minnesota, a state rare for Navy enlistments. He was a seasoned lumberjack in the northern Minnesota forests, where he developed balance and skill – “sea legs” — as a champion log-roller on the rivers and spillways. But Joseph LaPrairie also was American Indian, a Lake Superior Ojibwa man from the Fond du Lac Band, just northwest of Duluth. During his time at Great Lakes, LaPrairie organized other Native American sailors to participate in the resurgence of Native American rights, with the support of the U.S. Navy.
During World War I, many Native American men served in the U.S. Army among white native-born men and European immigrants. The publicized heroism of Native American men in two Army companies during the Battle of the Marne, following the national fame of Olympian Jim Thorpe and other Carlisle Indian School athletes, began overturning white stereotypes of Native people as hopelessly dependent. Very few Native American men, however, were conspicuous in the Navy. The nature of naval service made ships and submarines visible, but not sailors.
Great Lakes Naval Training Station was well-positioned on the railroad line between northern Indian Country and urban America. Chicago and its northern suburbs in 1920 were the national center of Native American activism, due largely to Dr. Carlos Montezuma and other Native Americans who found professional opportunities in Chicagoland. Beginning in 1912, the Society of American Indians advocated for a national “American Indian Day” as an alternative to Columbus Day. By 1919, six state legislatures enacted American Indian Day in public school curricula.
The first American Indian Day in Illinois was planned as an inter-tribal encampment
September 23-25, 1920, at the Deer Park Forest Preserve northwest of Chicago. In late August 1920, representatives of a newly formed Indian Fellowship League approached the Commandant of the U.S. Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Captain D. W. Wurtsbaugh, to request Native American sailor participation.
Captain Wurtsburgh appointed Sailor Joe LaPrairie to be the Navy’s local organizer of Native American Sailors. The Commandant’s assistant also posted notices in the Great Lakes Bulletin newspapers instructing all Native American enlisted Sailors to attend a meeting at the naval station’s auditorium. All naval regimental commanders and other officers were directed to release the men for the American Indian Day meeting. On September 20, Sailor LaPrairie reported that eighteen Native American men at Great Lakes submitted furlough requests to attend the inter-tribal encampment. He listed not only their naval regiments and companies, but their tribal affiliations.
Three days later, the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation (the personnel bureau) authorized the Sailors to travel to the inter-tribal encampment at U.S. Navy expense.
Joseph LaPrairie and the other Native American Sailors participated in the weekend encampment, its athletic competitions, and its religious rituals. Yet more importantly, they met and interacted with other Native American men and women from tribes throughout Indian Country. Eighteen Native American soldiers from the Army’s Fort Sheridan, located a few miles south of Great Lakes, also attended.
Native American Sailor and soldier participation carried strong symbolism for Native American people. Chicago was the site of the infamous 1832 treaty that surrendered Native American lands. In 1891, Fort Sheridan was the imprisonment site for Lakota Sioux warriors who participated in the 1890 “Ghost Dance” gathering and uprising at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the last instances of a Native American armed resistance against the U.S. Government. Now, in 1920, Native American people, who were barred from U.S. citizenship unless they gave up their tribal citizenship, were gathering near Chicago and Fort Sheridan to assert their rights through their naval and military service.
On Memorial Day 1921, Native American veterans and members of the Indian Fellowship League marched near the front of Chicago’s Memorial Day parade. They were led by the League’s new president, Francis Cayou, an Omaha Sioux athlete and nationally prominent athletic coach. By late summer 1921, Coach Cayou would add to the link between the Navy and the assertive “New Indian” of the 1920s when he joined Great Lakes as athletic trainer and coach.
More research is needed into the Navy careers of the eighteen known Native American Sailors at Great Lakes in September 1920. In the years after the meeting, fellow Sailors James Crawford, Robert Deer, Joseph Monroe, Bernard Flood, and James Bunker stood out by using their Native-language names and Native American identities through the 1920s and 1930s. In response to Native American self-determination advocacy arising
from Chicago and Indian Country, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which recognized the legal standing of “first Americans” as both U.S. citizens and tribal citizens. Ten years later, President Roosevelt signed the Wheeler-Howard Act, which empowered Native American tribes and bands to elect tribal governments. Could the Sailors who attended the September 15, 1920 meeting in the Great Lakes auditorium have envisioned what would follow in just a few years?
And the seasoned recruit who stood out at Great Lakes in 1920? By the late 1940s, Joseph LaPrairie returned to maritime life aboard iron ore ships on Lake Superior. He died at the Fond du Lac Reservation in Carlton, Minnesota, February 7, 1964, at age 75.
If you would like to learn more about American Indians and the U.S. Navy visit https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/diversity/american-indians.html.
Visit https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmas.html to learn more about the National Museum of the American Sailor.