National Native American Heritage Month: Nellie Locust, U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve

During World War II, Nellie Locust played a groundbreaking role as one of several Native American women from Oklahoma to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Women’s Reserve. USCG Women’s Reserve, also known as the SPARS (the acronym for “Semper Paratus – Always Ready”), was established in 1942 as the women’s branch of the USCG Reserve.

Locust, who was of Cherokee descent, had been born in 1921. The youngest of six children, she grew up on her family’s farm near the city of Vinita (originally a Native American community) in northeastern Oklahoma.

At an early age, Locust learned how to ride bareback at about the same time that she began walking. She later stated, “I remember all too clearly the first time a pinto threw me.” Locust went on to jokingly remark in that same interview, “Our biggest kick, however, used to come from attending the movies and learning how the Indians were supposed to live. We were even asked, sometimes, whether we were still at war with another tribe. Why, I didn’t know.”

Another childhood experience that left a strong impression on Locust involved her learning about a great-grandfather who was among those members of the Cherokee Nation forcibly removed from the southeastern United States to present-day Oklahoma. “My grandmother used to tell some interesting stories about her father going to Oklahoma,” she noted. “They called the trip ‘The Trail of Tears.’”

While speaking only Cherokee at home throughout much of her childhood, Locust eventually learned English as a student at a grammar school in the town of Wyandotte, Oklahoma. As part of her formal education, Locust also attended high school in the Oklahoma town of Ketcham. In addition, she graduated from Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in the north-central region of the Sooner State.

Locust’s opportunity to expand her horizons beyond her home state took place in August 1943, when she joined the SPARS to help contribute to the war effort. Her subsequent tour of duty in that military unit included assignments to a couple of USCG facilities in Florida. Locust was first assigned to handle administrative responsibilities as the USCG station at Fort Pierce on the state’s Atlantic coast. This station served as a repair base for cutters, patrol boats, and other types of watercraft. Locust was later transferred from Fort Pierce to Miami, where she worked at a USCG office in the Alfred I. duPont Building in the downtown area of that city.

Locust received some notable press coverage during her time in the military. “Cherokee Indian Princess Joined SPARS to Help Nation in War Work,” read a headline about her in a June 1944 edition of the Fort Pierce News-Tribune. The headline for a December 1944 edition of the Miami Herald proclaimed, “She is Proud of Heritage and Chance to Serve.” Even Locust’s social life made its way into the media spotlight. A couple of newspapers featured articles about her dating a U.S. Navy Reserve sailor named Johnny Cannon, a member of Kiowa tribe who had likewise grown up in the vicinity of Vinita.

Locust used the press coverage of her military career to commend other Native Americans for their own contributions to the fight against the Axis Powers. “I’m very proud of the fact that many that many Indian boys are serving in the armed services,” she said in one interview. “Several of them have received recognition for bravery in combat overseas.”

Locust died in 1947, only two years after the end of the war. She is buried at Swimmer Baptist Church Cemetery in Cherokee County, Oklahoma.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

For more information on Nellie Locust and other Native Americans who served in the SPARS, please check out

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