National Native American Heritage Month: Joseph Lewey, U.S. Navy Sailor

Approximately 12,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. military during World War I. These servicemen, according to records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, included more than 2,000 who were in the U.S. Navy. One of those Navy sailors was Joseph Lewey (sometimes spelled as Lewy), a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine. He lived on the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation in the eastern part of the Pine Tree State.

Lewey was only 18 when the United States officially entered World War I with a declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917. He had already enlisted in the Navy during the previous month. In the first few months after the United States joined the Allied Powers in the fight against Germany, Lewey received widespread attention for his relatively unique status as a Native American serving in the Navy and also as the first member of his reservation community to enlist in that military branch. “One of Uncle Sam’s Indian Sailors,” proclaimed the headline for an article about him in a May 1917 edition of the New York City-based Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper.

An article about Lewey appearing in an edition of the Pittsburgh Press the following month emphasized his trailblazing role when it came to water transportation. This article reported, “While every member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, the most easterly Indians of Maine, is an expert in the frail birch bark canoe, and a few often venture out into [local bays] in small gasoline boats on fishing trips, no member of the tribe has been known to go to sea in ships until Joseph Lewy, a youth on the reservation, enlisted in the United States navy recently.” This article also noted, “He is eager to see active service and hopes to be assigned later to a submarine.”

After initially being stationed at the Navy base in Newport, Rhode Island, Lewey served on board the battleship USS Nebraska (BB-14). The wartime duties of this vessel included being deployed as both a training ship and a transatlantic convoy escort. In addition, Nebraska was used to help transport U.S. Army soldiers back home from France after the Armistice ending the war had gone into effect on November 11, 1918.

Lewey’s naval service turned out to be comparatively brief. By November 1919, he had received his honorable discharge from that military branch. Lewey was back in Maine that month to visit the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation so that he could join that community in celebrating the first Armistice Day (now known in the United States as Veterans Day).

Sadly, however, Lewey was stricken with an illness en route to the reservation and had to be admitted to a hospital in the city of Calais, Maine, for medical treatment. While still a patient there on November 12, he died unexpectedly. He was only 21. The Bangor Daily News, after noting that both of Lewey’s parents had predeceased him, stated that he was “survived by an aged aunt at the reservation where he was held in high esteem.”

The dedication and valor shown by Lewey and the other Native Americans who served in the military during World War I helped bring about a far-reaching milestone a few years after the end of that global conflict. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, struck a long overdue blow against discriminatory treatment by granting citizenship to all Native Americans born within the United States.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Native Americans who served in the U.S. military during World War I, please check out https://americanindian.si.edu/static/why-we-serve/topics/world-war-1/

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