Exactly 154,012. This is the number of indigenous soldiers recorded so far by Yann Castelnot. “But I still have a long way to go,” says the Frenchman, who has developed a passion for the history of the First Nations in North America. As part of his work he presides the Association de Recherche des Anciens Combattants Amérindiens, a native veterans research society, which he founded in 2002. “I am still missing 350,000 names!” he says.
Yann Castelnot was a teenager in the 1990s when he discovered an article about the history of the indigenous soldiers from Canada and America who came to fight in his native region, the Somme, during World War I. He was immediately fascinated, and his initial research led him to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which manages and maintains 18 military cemeteries in the region, and to the equivalent U.S. organization, the American Battle Monuments Commission.
He sent off letters almost “at random” and received a reply from a Canadian veteran who told him the grandson of Sioux chief Sitting Bull, a man named Joseph Standing Buffalo, was buried in the Pas-de-Calais département. He was recruited to the Canadian Expeditionary Force and wounded near Arras in September 1918. He died from his injuries and was laid to rest in the Bucquoy Road Military Cemetery in Ficheux. Yann Castelnot had found his calling. Alongside his studies in marine biology and his work in a slaughterhouse, he began his research.
A File for Every Fighter
It took five years to draw up a first list of 1,000 names. Yann Castelnot compiles a file for every soldier, containing photos, ranks, wounds, medals, press cuttings, and place of burial. He has spoken with 472 veterans, their friends and families, or their descendants. One such veteran was Charles Chibitty, a Comanche native from Oklahoma. He was a “code talker” during World War II, landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and was named a Knight of the French National Order of Merit in 1989.
“My research sped up with the arrival of the internet,” says the Frenchman, who has lived in Rivière-du-Loup in Quebec since 2005. “But I don’t just blindly copy from the national archives.” The amateur historian pores through and compares the registries of indigenous reservations, records of officers in each regiment, and census information from 1910 for World War I and from 1940 for World War II. Research of this kind is easier in the United States, where all individuals are recorded by race. This is not the case in Canada, however. Yann Castelnot is obliged to hunt through the archives of the former “Department of Savages Affairs” responsible for the indigenous reservations until 1936, and those of the Department of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development.
The figures Yann Castelnot publishes on his website often differ from those reported by the government. The term “native” does not have the same meaning in the United States and Canada, and so the Frenchman applies the broadest definition possible. “I’m not interested in a soldier’s blood,” he says. “If I can trace their history back to a native tribe, they go on the list.”
This is how the historian reconstituted the family tree of the Sitting Downs, a family of Cherokees native to Oklahoma. Two members, Tom and Wilson, fought during the American Civil War. Their descendant, James Nathan Sitting Down, was wounded in World War I, and his seven sons served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Yann Castelnot became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 2017 and sees it as a “form of recognition” for his work. In the future he hopes to donate his archives to a museum or a foundation, which will help them “continue to grow” while making them accessible to indigenous veterans, their descendants, historians, and the public. “Aside from a few letters and the unique case of a soldier in Alberta who used drawings to record the battles he fought in the Great War, there are very few traces of indigenous soldiers,” says the Frenchman. “It is important to give these forgotten soldiers their rightful place in history.”