risked their lives fighting for a country that hadn't yet granted
Shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917,
Wisconsin Winnebagos (Ho Chunk) joined the 32nd "Red Arrow" Infantry
Division at Camp Douglas, although they were exempt from selective
In July 1917, the Rapids Ah-dah-wa-gam chapter of the Daughters
of the American Revolution sent each of 23 new soldiers from the
Grand Rapids Indian Agency district khaki "comfort bags" containing
useful personal items.
"All of us Indians were in thanks to get the good things you
have sent," wrote recruit James Brown.
"We drill at 7:30 in the morning to 10:30 and in the afternoon
we only drill one hour and if we have any ball games we don't drill
in the afternoon. We are having all kinds of fun.
"There are about 154 boys in our Co. There are about 15 Indian
boys and the rest are white.
"We got a YMCA here and also a show tent where we see a show
every night. We all can drill just as good as any body in the company
the troops embarked for France, a story published in 1975 relates,
a government official stood at the foot of the gangplank to inform
American Indians they did not have to serve or go overseas. The
Winnebago leader turned and said, in his language, "Does any one
of you wear a skirt? If so, go home."
The Ah-da-wa-gam chapter provided a Service Flag to the Indian
Agency here in December 1918, honoring three of the same Winnebagos
who had received comfort bags and who had died or been killed. On
June 12, 1919, two more gold stars signified two more deaths. Patriotism
and good soldiering, said the accompanying statement, "place them
in the front ranks of the American Expeditionary forces."
Of the 23 at Camp Douglas, these five had died:
- Mike Standing Water, 19, the first Wisconsin Indian to die
in the war, of pneumonia March 11, 1918, on the transport Leviathan
on route to France, brought back at the request of his father,
a chief, and buried with drumming, chants and military honors
in Pine Grove's "Indian cemetery" at Mather, Wis.
- Dewey Mike, 19, from wounds at Marne, France, August 30,
1918, buried at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Picardie, France,
in a grave visited by his octogenarian mother in 1933.
- Jesse Thompson, killed in action Oct. 10, 1918, a month before
the Armistice, buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne,
- Robert "Bob" Decorah, also "DeCorah," 24, killed in action
Aug. 2, 1918.
- Corp. Foster Decorah, 40-plus, killed in action the same
Foster Decorah was a character of note. A minor fur trader and
"sharpshooter of renown," in 1907 the elder Decorah had killed ten
wolves and collected $100 bounty.
At a "condition of Indian affairs hearings" in 1911, he told
Wisconsin Senator and later presidential candidate Robert M. La
Follette he once had worked in a flour mill for $1 a day but soon
Then of Reedsburg, Decorah, father of two boys and a girl, said
he ran an Indian camp, shooting gallery and sold beads as concessions
in Illinois "picnic parks."
Liquor trouble brought Decorah into contact with federal judge
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, later to become the first U.S. Commissioner
In one of their several meetings, Landis suggested, "Let's you
and I go on the water wagon for the rest of this term of court."
Decorah also appeared in the Landis court in 1914 when a bar
owner in La Crosse sold him beer after he claimed to be Mexican.
He had been acting as a government decoy.
descendent of the "illustrious Chief Decorah," he presented a commanding
figure when he appeared as a witness in another case, "wearing the
khaki of a soldier with broad shoulders and graceful carriage."
A fellow member of the 32nd Division said that Decorah and his
nephew Robert Decorah had fallen on the same field and that Decorah's
son was also a member of the company.
"I had often watched the older go through bayonet practice.
We taught our men to assume a ferocious expression in bayonet conflict
and Foster Decorah's face was worth study at such times."
Foster Decorah is buried at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Picardie,
His son, Henry, died in 1993, at age 94, and is buried at Ft.
Snelling National Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minn.
Dave Engel is a local historian and author of books in the "River
City Memoirs" series. His columns are featured monthly in Daily