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Interpreting the Evidence

Oneida Involvement in World War I

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Comprehension

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Indigenous Peoples of North America
    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    Central New York
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load First Lieutenant John Powless of Oneida, NY, World War I, c. 1917 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Madison County's Commissioned Officers, including "number 4" First Lieutenant John Powless of the Oneida Nation, Oneida, NY, c. 1917.

Historical Context
First Lieutenant John Powless was a member of the Turtle Clan and a member of the Oneida Nation. He served in World War I as a commissioned officer. After returning home from the war, he decided to re-enlist and served as machine-gun instructor at Fort Hancock in Georgia and later transferred to Fort Slocum in New York. 
Less than forty years after the end of the fight for Western territories, thousands of Indigenous Peoples served in World War I as members of the United States military. First Lieutenant Powless was just one of many who pledged loyalty to the United States government and risked their lives to protect U.S. interests. Indigenous Peoples in the United States were considered citizens of a separate nation. In order to become U.S. citizens, they needed to marry a U.S. citizen or voluntarily join the military. The naturalization process used by foreign immigrants was not open to them.
In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed which made all non-citizen Indigenous Peoples born within the United States full citizens. The service of Indigenous soldiers in World War I served as a major contributing factor to the passage of this act. Indigenous leaders argued that if their people were willing to die for U.S. causes then they should be permitted to become full citizens.

Essential Question
How do individuals contribute to a nation's war effort?

Check for Understanding
Using the photograph and historical background, explain how John Powless contributed to the war effort.

Historical Challenges
The Oneida Nation supported the United States in other wars, as well. Find information about another war in which the Oneida Nation provided support to the United States. In what ways did the Oneidas support the war effort? How did the United States recognize their support?

Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Using your knowledge of World War I and John Powless’ life, write a page from First Lieutenant John Powless’ journal.