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William Little Wolf: From White Earth Reservation to Navy gunner in World War I

In 1917, he ran away from Carlisle Indian Industrial School in order to join the Navy and fight for the United States in World War I.

William Little Wolf was born in Naytahwaush, on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation, on April 22, 1899. Records suggest that Little Wolf’s parents, Bishop (Mish-ki-bi-nince) and Maggie Little Wolf, either chose or were forced to move from Mille Lacs to the White Earth Reservation under pressure from logging companies. William claimed Ininew (Cree) and Ojibwe ancestry. His family spoke Ojibwe at home.

William Little Wolf in his US Navy uniform, 1917.
Carlisle Indian School Digital Archives/National Archives and Records Administration
William Little Wolf in his US Navy uniform, 1917.
In 1909, William Little Wolf entered the Indian boarding school system. The highly regimented boarding schools were designed to cut ties between Native American children and their traditional cultural and spiritual lives and prepare them for manual labor, farming and domestic work. The details of Little Wolf’s school experiences are unknown. But the strict regimen and sometimes harsh punishment seem to have taken a toll. Little Wolf ran away from the Wild Rice Boarding School in 1912. He enrolled in the White Earth Boarding School, run by the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict, the following semester.

In 1913, Bishop Little Wolf consented to William Little Wolf’s admission to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1879, Carlisle was the first government-run boarding school for Native Americans. Reflecting the school’s mission of forced assimilation, Carlisle’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt, coined the motto “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Housed in a former military barracks, the school cut students’ braids, assigned them European-American names, and punished the use of Native languages. During the summer, it boarded students out at local farms (a practice called “outing”) rather than allowing them to return to the influence of their homes and families. If William Little Wolf had a traditional Ojibwe name, it disappeared from public use.

Little Wolf’s initial adjustment to Carlisle was difficult. He ran away soon after arriving, returning again after a month’s absence. Thereafter, he seemed to find his place. He enrolled for a second three-year term in 1916 and sought admission for a brother and sister. He developed close friendships with other students and expressed genuine affection for the school.

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In June 1917, Little Wolf slipped away from his “outing” at a Pennsylvania farm to join the U.S. Navy. The United States had just entered World War I. The Navy, Little Wolf heard, “would be the first to go into action.” After leaving, he wrote Carlisle’s superintendent with an explanation and a half-apology for leaving without permission: “I am very sorry that I had to . . . run away from the country but I was anxious to join the Navy. But still I am glad that I did.” The superintendent admonished Little Wolf’s “mistake” but supported his decision to enlist. He promised to update Little Wolf’s status from “deserter” to “withdrawn” on his student record. In a sign of the assimilation pressures he faced, Little Wolf enlisted as “William Leon Wolfe.”

After training at the Norfolk Training Station, Little Wolf worked as a baker on the USS Texas. In early 1918 he transferred to the USS Utah. There, he served on the fire control team for one of the ship’s 12-inch guns. He won the Sixth Division’s lightweight boxing championship in 1918. The Utah’s skipper, Captain H. H. Hough, singled out Little Wolf’s “character[,] stalwart service and ability.”

Little Wolf left the Navy in 1919 with the rank of Third-Class Petty Officer/Coxswain and leader of the crew serving the USS Utah’s No. 1 forward gun. He returned to something of a hero’s welcome: “My people were proud of my determination to fight,” he told the lecturer and photographer Joseph K. Dixon. As they did in other conflicts, more Native people per capita had enlisted to fight in World War I than any other American ethnic group.

After the war, Little Wolf resumed a quiet life. The 1930 census listed him as living in Cass Lake with his wife, Margaret, a daughter, son, and two step children. He worked as a truck driver at a local lumber yard. During the Great Depression, he subsisted as a beadwork artist and craftsman and as a sub-foreman on a government-funded construction project. In 1940 and 1941 he took part in the nine-day, 450-mile Aquatennial canoe derby, paddling down the Mississippi River from Bemidji to Minneapolis.

William Little Wolf died in September 1953. He was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.