It’s a lesser-known aspect of American history: Native Americans fought in the Civil War.
Filmmaker Stan Armstrong tells this story in his documentary, “Native Americans of the Civil War.”
When did you hear about this part of history that few people know about?
"I've always been a history buff. Probably back at UNLV taking African-American studies classes."
Did they fight voluntarily?
"Some did, some didn't. We really have to put ourselves back in that time and era. For these men, a lot was necessity for economics, some did it for adventure. Certainly, the Southern Indians, we're talking about the five so-called civilized tribes... most of those guys fought for the South. The Cherokee were slave holders. They were very big slave holders and tried to assimilate into European culture."
Were tribes ever split with some fighting for the North and others for the South?
"Oh yeah, Some Cherokees fought for the North and some fought for the South. When we talk about the Civil War, it was a very ambiguous time where brothers fought against brothers, cousins fought against cousins. And for the Native Americans, it certainly was part of their every day life too. They were swept up in the war"
What were the Native Americans fight for?
"Probably the same thing that African-Americans were fighting for that Irish-Americans were fighting for to show that they were Americans. To show that they believe not only in this country but where ever they supported, if it was the South or it was the North"
What was the relationship like between Native Americans and African Americans?
"It wasn't really that great. There are a lot of African Americans today that are trying to get reparation from the Cherokee Nation. But you have to understand to that the Cherokee didn't really keep great records either."
Were the Native Americans in segregated? Or did they fight along side white soldiers?
"No, they were segregated. The First Colored Kansas Regiment had a group of Indians, as well as Indians who fought in the Battle of the Crater. The were comprised of African Americans, as well as Native Americans and General Grant praised the Native Americans as well as the African Americans, who went inside the crater. And so many of these brave men as well as all Americans, lost their lives in that battle."
Tell us about Ely Parker:
"Ely Parker was a Seneca Indian. A very smart man. He and his brother Isaac Newton Parker joined the Union Army, lived in upstate New York. He was studying for the law at the time.
Grant really trusted him completely. Ely Parker probably had the same attitude that a lot of let's say white men had fighting for the Union Army at that time to keep the Union free. To bring the Union together."
How did these Native American soldiers fair after the war?
"Ten, 20 years later, Confederate Armies and groups would have reunions and in the reunion pictures you'll see a lot of Native Americans with a lot of these Confederate soldiers who fought at let's say the Battle of Gettysburg or Pea Ridge and they're sitting there some 20 years later amongst their peers proud as peacocks."
Stan Armstrong, documentary filmmaker and instructor of Afro-American Studies at UNLV