Five Questions for Chag Lowry
"The story of Native men who participated in the Great War within the U.S. military is unique"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Chag Lowry is a Native American graphic novelist who lives in Northern California. He has a particular interest in telling the story of World War I, due to the amazing things that he has learned about the Native American soldiers who served in the U.S. military during that time. He has a new graphic novel about World War I coming out, entitled SOLDIERS UNKNOWN, and he took some time to tell us about it.
Tell us about your unique project. SOLDIERS UNKNOWN is a new graphic novel about some remarkable people who fought in World War I.
My people have served in the United States military for generations. I am a Native American person who is of Yurok, Maidu, and Achumawi ancestry from northern California and this military history is often not known or understood by other people. I had two great-great-uncles who served in World War One; they are of Yurok ancestry and their names are Walt McCovey, Sr. and Thomas Reed. I learned more about them and other Native WW1 soldiers and sailors as I conducted interviews for the books I wrote about World War Two and Korean War Native veterans. These men would show me photos of their fathers or older brothers who were in the Great War.
I wanted to honor the WW1 experiences I learned about using a different artistic format, and this is where I connected with the very talented artist Rahsan Ekedal. I wrote a script based on my research on the 91st Infantry Division's experiences in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This is the division that many Native men from California were part of, including a Maidu man named Thomas Tucker. I was raised listening to stories about Tucker, and learned how he was the first person from northeastern California to die in combat during the Meuse-Argonne battle. I also learned about dozens of other Native men from tribes throughout northern California who also served in the war.
SOLDIERS UNKNOWN is a work of historical fiction. How much of it is true, and how much is fiction? Are your characters based on actual Yurok soldiers? How did you research, write, and storyboard, this story? Awesome artwork, by the way!
I wrote a script that focuses on three Yurok young men who are drafted and who volunteer for the war. They then take part in the first phase of the Meuse-Argonne battle. I showed this script to Rahsan and he became my partner in this journey to share about not just the war experiences of Yurok soldiers, but also to show how their families and community reacts to the war and its aftermath. I wanted to show how the unique aspects of Yurok culture were impacted by these men leaving their home villages and then returning after a traumatic and life-altering time in war.
The battle scenes are very true to the place in the Meuse-Argonne where the 91st fought, and I spent considerable time researching the types of weapons used, which German armies were on the other side, the types of terrain, and as many details as possible. I'm fortunate that Rahsan is such a talented artist and that he can draw and color all of these different aspects of the war! I think the graphic novel format is perfect to help educate about what the soldiers saw and did in September of 1918 in the Meuse-Argonne. Rahsan's art is going to attract young people to this story when the book is published by Heyday Books in spring of 2018.
In general terms, what was the Yurok's role related to the war, and in the 91st Division? Were there many Yurok tribe members in the U.S Army at the time, and in the 91st Division? How about other Native American tribes? Was their experience similar? Wasn't there an oddity in Native American citizenship at the time?
The story of Native men who participated in the Great War within the U.S. military is unique for many reasons. First, these men were not even U.S. citizens! Most Native people were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924. Second, the military was segregated for African-American men, but not for Native American men. What did this mean and how were Native men treated or thought of by others in the service? Most importantly, every Native man from that generation was a holder of culture, language, and ceremony that is precious. When a Native man died in combat their entire community was impacted in a devastating manner. I also wanted to show how culture and ceremony helped heal those Native men who returned home.
Why do this? Why are these stories important to you? Why should they be remembered?My characters represent the historical aspects that are present among the Native American experience of World War One. The characters are Yurok but I feel they represent all Native soldiers from that time. It is important to represent the full range of cultures and people who fought and sacrificed in the Great War. Our families and communities are still impacted by this experience today. Thank you for letting me share about this work.