The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians created Great Oak Press in 2014 to convey the stories not only of the Luiseño people but also of Native American people in general. The graphic book “Unknown Soldiers” was published in September 2019, and the graphic publication format made it suitable for a March 8 presentation at San Diego Comic Fest by author Chag Lowry.
The session “Native Americans, the U.S. Military, Boarding Schools, and Comics” focused on the book Lowry wrote about Native Americans in World War I while also putting the status of Native Americans at the time into context.
“That’s not too far remote from when the U.S. military waged genocide,” Lowry said. “The Native men who served in this war, they were not American citizens.”
The people who at the time were known as Indians were granted United States citizenship in 1924.
“That’s just citizenship on paper. It doesn’t mean that every state gave us all of our rights,” Lowry said.
Ironically the United States military had greater acceptance of Native Americans.
“The American Army was segregated at this time. African Americans were segregated. For whatever reason Native Americans were integrated,” Lowry said.
Lowry was born in 1974 and thus at the tail end of the Vietnam War.
“My parents raised me to question authority,” he said.
He wondered why so many Native Americans served in the United States armed forces.
“That question pushes me every day in my work,” Lowry said.
Lowry is Yurok on his mother’s side and Maidu and Achumawi on his father’s side. The Maidu are indigenous to Lassen County, the Achumawi are indigenous to Modoc County and the Yurok are indigenous to Del Norte County and Humboldt County along the Klamath River.
“We are the original people of this place, of this country, but often our stories are the last to be told, to be shared,” Lowry said. “For too long people who have not been living the life have been telling our stories, putting the imagery out. It’s time for that to change.”
Although most Native Americans were restricted to reservations, children were placed in boarding schools.
“The methodology was to break down Native families and to forcibly assimilate Native children into American culture,” Lowry said. “Family visits were not permitted in those places. Often they split up siblings.”
The impact on Native American families persists from that situation.
“We have challenges based on those,” Lowry said.
Hair was cut.
“For many Native Americans that’s a very significant act,” Lowry said.
Ironically the cutting of a Native American’s hair, which was traditionally done as a symbol of mourning, underscored the destruction of Native American life as the families knew it.
The boarding school residents were also given “white man’s clothes,” and their own clothing was taken away.
“The clothes that you choose to wear, that’s your own identity,” Lowry said.
The adult Native American men who volunteered for the war were willing to don United States military uniforms, and they joined white men in wearing dressy attire during their enlistments.
“When they signed up to go into the service, they would dress in their Sunday best,” Lowry said.
Lowry’s paternal grandfather, Stanley Lowry, was a second lieutenant during World War II.
“My grandfather never really talked about his time in the service,” Lowry said.
Stanley Lowry fought in the Pacific theater before being sent to France to train new officers. In 1945 Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered all American officers into the concentration camps to be witnesses to the German atrocities, which added to Stanley Lowry’s trauma.
Lowry’s great-uncle Leonard Lowry was also an officer during World War II.
“Both of them had to come home after that and there were no programs, no help,” Lowry said.
Leonard Lowry stayed in the Army after World War II and also served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and is the most decorated Native American in U.S. military history.
“Every man of my grandfather’s generation fought World War II either in the Pacific or Europe,” Lowry said.
Two of Lowry’s Yurok great-great uncles fought in World War I. On a worldwide basis that war began in 1914, although the United States did not enter the conflict until 1917. World War I ended in November 1918.
“It was supposed to be the war to end all wars,” Lowry said.
World War I also saw previously unused combat weapons such as gas, machine guns, aerial combat and artillery fired from motor vehicles.
Lowry and artist Rahsan Ekedal, who is not a Native American but grew up in Northern California, used black and white imagery as well as color illustrations in “Unknown Soldiers.”
“That puts you in the context of being in the past,” Lowry said.
The focus on “Unknown Soldiers” is the Meuse-Argonne campaign which lasted 47 days, from the beginning of September 1918 to Nov. 11, 1918. American troops sustained tens of thousands of casualties, including more than 25,000 fatalities.
“I wanted to end with the power of healing, the power of resilience,” Lowry said.
Some of the images in “Unknown Soldiers” are cultural rather than combat.
“Imagery is so powerful,” Lowry said.
One piece of imagery on the cover tells more about Lowry than about his family members and other Native Americans who fought in World War I. In 2013 Congress established the World War I Centennial Commission to work with governments and private entities on the commemoration of World War I. The commission included a logo for World War I history books approved by the commission, and “Unknown Soldiers” has that logo.
“It’s been vetted at the highest academic military levels,” Lowry said.
The commission had a sunset, and “Unknown Soldiers” was approved in the commission’s final days.
Lowry considers his March 8 presentation to be another endorsement.
“Now I can say I showed my artwork at San Diego Comic Fest,” he said.
Although the last World War I veteran died in 2011, Lowry attended a reunion of his grandfather’s combat unit which included 60 World War II veterans.
“These are some of the men who guided my work,” Lowry said.
Lowry also joined six World War II veterans commanded by his grandfather at the World War II memorial in Washington.
“I had the honor of going to this,” Lowry said.
The book took Lowry and Ekedal approximately three years to complete.
“It took over a hundred years to bring this story out,” Lowry said. “It’s very healing.”
“Students can go there by choice now,” Lowry said.
Native Americans can also now tell their side of history at Indian boarding schools.
“I can talk to young Native people. It facilitates dialogue and discussion,” Lowry said. “There’s power in the storytelling.”
“Unknown Soldiers” provides more than military and cultural history.
“Art is where our emotions can be shared,” Lowry said. “Every emotion that people have, we have them.”
The graphic publication format itself reflects Native American culture.
“As a native people we’ve used sequential art since time immemorial,” Lowry said.
Lowry hopes his artwork also helps uplift the trauma Native Americans suffered in the past.
“We’re coming out of that. We’re resilient. We’re strong,” he said.
Lowry had written two previous books. He was with the Public Broadcasting System station KEET in Eureka and worked on a documentary about Native Americans in World War II which was turned into a book. He has also written a book on Native Americans in the Korean War. Great Oak Press will be reprinting Lowry’s two other books.
“I’m fortunate to work with Pechanga. They’re very gracious,” Lowry said.
Joe Naiman can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.