The Great War
An Aboriginal volunteer and his parents
1914-1918, 20th century
This artefact belongs to: © Ontario Archives
This photo shows a Native American man joining the army. Although many did not view Native Americans as equal citizens in Canada, the Canadian government were still desperate to recruit them to the ranks of their ever expanding armed forces. For the most part, they were sucessful. Many Native American boys longed to join the army to escape what they saw as a boring life on reservations. Also, many made there decision based on the Native American hero Frank Pegahmabow. Mr. Pegahmabow was said to have sniped some 368 German soldiers, and for this reason many young men wished to emulate him.
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Keys to History
In 1914 no one pretended that Native people were equal citizens of Canada or even First Nations with legitimate special claims. However, the military prowess of Native warriors made them eagerly sought recruits. Native leaders had mixed feelings. Their treaties, in their view, made them nations allied to the British King. If he wanted their support in his war with Germany, he should ask for it directly, and not through a self-important and interfering Indian Agent. Ottawa initially hesitated to disrupt a reserve life it hoped would turn Natives into peaceful, productive agriculturalists, but recruiting the C.E.F. soon took priority over everything. While officials wondered whether Germans would grant Native prisoners the protection of the Hague Conventions, they ignored misgivings and encouraged voluntary enlistment. What better advertisement for both the Empire and for Canadian Native policy than skilled Native scouts and snipers terrorizing the German enemy?
The Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, poet Duncan Campbell Scott, urged his officials to promote a patriotic spirit among Native peoples and collected all the evidence he could for his annual reports. Faced with poverty and utter boredom on their reserves, young Natives were easily attracted. The death of Joseph Brant's descendant as a CEF officer at Ypres in 1915 persuaded the Iroquois Six Nations to boycott the war effort, but it proved a hard rule to enforce. On some reserves the disapproval of elders and their families held men back, but thousands of Native men enlisted. Like other Canadians they chafed at discipline, especially at the army's rejection of buckskin, amulets and charms and its emphasis on uniforms and neatness. As stereotypes suggested, Native soldiers thrived on outpost duty and as snipers, where supervision was minimal. Frank Pegahmabow attributed his three Military Medals and 368 German victims to the medicine bag he managed to carry with him throughout the war.
Like other parents, the older people weigh pride in their son's manly choice with their own worry that he may well be lost to them forever. The young man knows that he, too, will be going into a very unfamiliar world where his enemies may not only be limited to the Germans.
The photograph gives no details of the names or location of its subjects.
The photograph gives no indication of a date.
This unknown Native soldier stands with his aged parents outside the Indian Agent's house on his reserve in northern Ontario.