Originally published by The 19th.
In an old black and white photograph, four nuns flank a priest at a U.S. military hospital in Havana, Cuba. Their severe expressions speak to the harsh conditions they had faced during the Spanish-American War — from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota to military camps in Florida, Georgia and eventually Cuba.
The four Lakota Sioux women — Mary Anthony, Mary Joseph, Mary Gertrude and Mary Bridget — were there to help care for sick and injured soldiers. They also put their stamp on history as the first known Native American women to serve in the United States military.
Today, American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average — with the women serving in higher concentration than any other ethnic population. Nearly 20 percent of Native service members are women, compared with 15.6 percent of all other women service members.
But as the first Native American women to serve, these nurses faced increased scrutiny and racial prejudice from military officials and the news media of the time. A handwritten note on each card recommending them for duty described the women as having “dark” coloring, being used to “severe hardships, and privations, and exposure to heat and cold” while working as missionaries on Indian land and being able to “endure safely what most nurses cannot endure,” according to the U.S. National…