In recognition of Native American Heritage Day, we have asked William H. Thiesen, Ph.D. the United States Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian to provide some history on Native Americans who have served with pride and distinction in the United States Coast Guard and its predecessor services.
Minorities have participated in the U.S. Coast Guard since the service’s beginning in 1790 and have served throughout the history of the Coast Guard and its predecessor services. Since the nineteenth century, Native American members of the U. S. Coast Guard have served from a variety of tribes and locations and pioneered the way ahead for service diversity.
It is not known who the first Native American individual to enlist in the Coast Guard was, but, as a group, the first Native Americans that served typically came from coastal tribes known to be expert watermen. These tribes included the Wampanoags in Massachusetts, Ojibwa in the Great Lakes and the Makah tribe in Washington State. Native Americans from these tribes typically served at shore bases in predecessor services such as the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
An example of one of the earliest documented Native American involvements in the service occurred in 1879 at the Life-Saving Service station at Neah Bay, Washington. Neah Bay was composed of a white keeper and an entirely Native American crew. The crewmembers included skilled surfmen, such as As-Chik-Abik, Tsos-et-oos, and Tsa-la-boos. This unit was the first one in federal service composed primarily of Native Americans and it was formed not long after Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn, when anti-Native American sentiment ran high.
From 1912 until 1933, Charles Vanderhoop, of the Aquinnah Wampanoags, served in the U.S. Lighthouse Service as a keeper for lighthouses on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. As keeper, Vanderhoop would hire other Wampanoag tribal members as assistants because they proved more reliable and hardworking. Vanderhoop was very popular as the long-serving keeper at Gay Head Lighthouse, and visitors from the community flocked to the lighthouse where he gave tours to approximately 300,000 visitors.
Native American Coast Guard personnel have also served with distinction in time of war. Wampanoag Carlton West, of Nantucket, served in World War I and World War II. George “White Bear” Drapeaux, of the Sioux Nation, served as a gunners mate during World War II, including service on the USS Wakefield in Singapore. And, in 1943, James Leftwich, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, enlisted in the Coast Guard at the ripe age of fourteen. He retired as an officer in 1964 after a fruitful career in the service.
Native Americans in the United States Coast Guard have served from a variety of Indian nations, including not only coastal tribes, but the Sioux, Cherokee, Chickasaw and many others. These personnel pioneered the way ahead for minorities in the Coast Guard and their efforts have benefitted all who serve in the U.S. military and their efforts have benefitted all who serve in the U.S. military and federal government, and the nation as a whole.