The War to Assimilate
Although American participation in World War I lasted only nineteen months, it brought immediate and profound changes to the American West. The war allowed the western economy to overcome its traditional handicaps and establish firms which could, for the first time, compete with eastern manufacturers in finished products. Urbanization developed simultaneously as cities such as Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco attracted thousands of workers to fill war jobs. Because of this and young men entering the military, Indians and other minority groups found new employment opportunities. Wartime food needs led to the notorious "Great Plow-up" that affected several Indian reservations. 1
Since the federal government traditionally exercised a high degree of control over reservations, in many ways the war effort affected Indians more than the general population. Indeed, Commissioner Cato Sells's enthusiastic support for the war caused him to turn every BIA program toward victory. Sells believed the war represented "the difference between a despotic and an altruistic spirit; the difference for Deutschland über alles and America for all." The commissioner also saw the war as a unique opportunity to benefit all mankind. Americans were "proving democracy's excellence and stability and commending . . . its liberty and justice to all governments." 2 Thus, instead of reassessing prewar policies of Indian self- support, citizenship, and assimilation, Sells sought to use the war in every possible way to accomplish these goals.
Sells urged Indians to enter the military forces and to realize their opportunity to assimilate. An unknown, but probably small, number of young men had already responded by enlisting in the Canadian armed services. 3 Once the United States declared war, a large number of Indians enlisted. Registration for the draft occurred in June 1917, and it included all Indian males, both citizens and non-citizens, between twenty-one and thirty-one years old. The provost marshall general instructed the BIA to establish draft boards at each agency, but Sells preferred that regular selective service officials handle registration, deferments, and inductions. Where selective service machinery did not exist, agency employees administered the process. 4
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Publication information: Book title: Indians and the American West in the Twentieth Century. Contributors: Donald Lee Parman - Author. Publisher: Indiana University Press. Place of publication: Bloomington, IN. Publication year: 1994. Page number: 59.