Yann Castelnot is a former resident of Vimy, France, who immigrated to Canada 13 years ago. Over the past 20 years, he’s been researching Indigenous people who served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and the US Army. He’s an amateur historian who’s done his investigation voluntarily, and collected the names of over 154,000 veterans to date.
Castelnot’s efforts earned him a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation in 2017, an award given to those who’ve contributed to the remembrance of
the contributions, sacrifices, and achievements of veterans.
I had the opportunity to interview the historian, Castelnot, who said he’s always been fascinated with North American Indigenous people.
“It started with a passion for the North American Indigenous people during my childhood, I was like a lot of French, very curious about this culture, and I started to read a lot on the subject, to attend exhibitions, to enter associations,” said Castelnot. “In 1998, I saw an article about Sioux in the trenches. At the time, the internet was not as developed as today, and the subject of Native American veterans was not addressed anywhere. There were some vague documents, but nothing more.”
He began by looking for information about Native soldiers that enlisted in both world wars, and then created a list of these soldiers.
“It had to be a temporary project since I thought it would be too difficult to find information and names. I started by creating the list of Native Canadians during the world wars – easier for me because of the proximity of the military cemeteries,” Castelnot said. “I later added the names of those from the USA, than those of Korea, and finally I decided to look for all those who served after the date of December 29, 1890, the date of the massacre of Wounded Knee and the official end of the Indian wars.”
In 2013, he received the Diamond Jubilee Medal, and it triggered him to search for other wars. “Would those who served in the Boer War, or the War of 1812 also have the right to be honored?” said Castelnot.
Yann uncovered a lot of interesting information beyond well-known soldiers like Francis Pegahmagabow, Tommy Prince, Thomas Longboat, Joseph Brant, and Henry Louis Norwest. He said we could add to that prominent list the names of Sgt. Jerome Frank Narcisse – a recipient of three military medals, Captain Smith Alexander – Military Cross and recipient of the Order of the Black Star of Poland, and a woman from the Six Nations named Krystal Lee Anne Giesebrecht Brant – Master Corporal, and descendant of Joseph Brant.
When it comes to Native veteran history, it’s also necessary to include the lack of information, the errors often conveyed, and the historical oversights, Castelnot pointed out.
“We forget that more than 11,000 Natives fought alongside their British friends during the War of 1812,” said Castelnot. “We forget that nearly 30,000 of them fought with the French or English during the colonial wars because they had established military, political, and economic alliances with newcomers. North American history is not only about massacres.”
Indigenous men, young and old, volunteered for the same reasons as other Canadians, and they were respected by their brothers-in-arms.
“There are some cases of racism, but it’s marginal,” said Castelnot. “They did not have an easy life when they returned from the front, for a majority of them, yet they massively reengaged during World War II.”
Restoring data is important. For example, before starting his research, Castelnot heard there were 7,000 to 12,000 enlisted during the two world wars, and 500 dead; whereas in reality, more than 14,800 Indigenous served in the Canadian army, resulting in 1,600 deaths. The database includes information and stories about the United States’ first code talkers; on Admiral Clark, who served during the two World Wars, and Korean War; Walkabout Billy, who was one of the greatest heroes of the Vietnam War; the first Native American officers during the War of 1812; and completely Native American units during the American Civil War who fought for the south. In each war there is a special case to tell.
I asked Castelnot if it was true that most Indigenous soldiers never received farmland and money that was promised to them when they returned from World Wars I and II.
“The story is a bit more complicated. It is necessary to go back to the context of the time: Reserves were administered by Indian Affairs, and those who lived there depended on the Indian agents. Money and land were controlled by these agents,” said Castelnot. “It should be noted that there were a few instances where these agents actually worked for the good of people in their reserves, and thereby did encourage young people to go out of the reserves and live ‘free’ with their own money and property.”
It must also be remembered that the First World War had an impact. Native people are no longer perceived as a savage, but as a brother in arms (within the war) who has done his duty. Most of the soldiers send money to their families still on the reserves, where they were no longer enfranchised. As a result, the money belonged to the reserve and not to the family, and that is the same for the lands, so they mostly disguised their aboriginal status in order to obtain off-reserve property.
When you look at the Indian Affairs reports of the time, you realize that more than half the Aboriginal soldiers hired did so without declaring their status, and the Indian officers actually learned by chance that these men (and women) were enrolled. The majority of Indigenous soldiers lived on reserves and did not own property – land and money to come back to without any benefits from their wartime efforts.
But in summary, this remains a minority case.
“In fact, in the Indian affairs archives (RG10 de bibliotheque and archives Canada) there are nearly 2,500 document references for land transfers for Aboriginal veterans on reserves (at least those known to date), this is small compared to the 8,300 who served,” said Castelnot.
In 2003, the federal government offered a public apology and compensation to Native veterans.
Castelnot’s database is one of the largest collection of Indigenous soldiers’ names, and provides a way to learn more about Indigenous men and women’s contributions to Canadian, and American forces.
Luc O’Bomsawin, founding president of the Aboriginal Veterans of Quebec Association, told CBC News that the database has shed much-needed light on history that’s often forgotten or “put aside.”
“His work is essential, and there’s not too many people that did the same kind of work with that dedication,” said O’Bomsawin, an Abenaki veteran from Odanak, Que.
O’Bomsawin said he was surprised by the new information Castelnot uncovered, such as the number of soldiers who received decorations, and even just the sheer number of soldiers from both sides of the border who served in various conflicts.
“We were told different numbers, but nobody really had something to base their assumptions on,” said O’Bomsawin. “With him going through the records, and newspapers, and whatever he’s searched, he managed to change these figures. The figures that he puts on are a lot more serious than what I’ve seen up to now.”
Castelnot’s database is at NativeVeterans-en.e-monsite.com.