Updated November 10, 2007For generations, Native Americans have had the highest rate of military service of any ethnic group in the country. Native American Veterans go above and beyond in serving their country. As I travel the Southwest I am taken with the patriotism of Native Americans. Respect shown to Native American veterans rivals that of most any other American cultural group. Despite the oppression experienced by Native Americans, the desire to serve the United States as honored warriors remains a part of the culture.
Honors and Honor Guards
I first noticed that the Native American veteran was something special when I attended Pow Wows and Intertribal Cermonies. Each event began with an honor guard posting the colors... the colors of the United States of America. Often accompanying the American flag was the state flag and a POW-MIA flag. Often the color guard was made up of proud Viet Nam Veterans from the local area. I also noticed the full respect shown these veterans as they posted the colors. It amazed me that peoples who had been unceremoniously ripped from their homelands, sent to schools to part them from their spiritual beliefs, language and culture, could put all of this aside and step forward to volunteer to serve their country.
World War II - The Navajo Code Talkers
I grew up as a post-WWII child. We never heard about the Navajo Code Talkers until recently. No one spoke about them because of the continued value of their language as a security classified code. However, the Navajo code talkers of World War II were honored for their contributions to defense on Sept. 17, 1992, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.
Several years ago when attending the Heard Museum's Indian Market, I entered a courtyard and saw a table with three stately Navajo elders, in uniform, sitting there. They were actual Code Talkers, there to share their experiences and sign books about their duty during World War II.
On a recent Northern Arizona trip, we stopped at a Burger King on the Navajo Reservation in the town of Kayenta and found a great little Code Talker Museum. It was there because the owner of the restaurant placed the displays there in honor of his father, a Veteran Code Talker. His father, King Mike, brought many of the artifacts home with him from the war. More Information on the Navajo Code Talkers.
Native American Service in Viet Nam
Both Native American men and women enlisted to serve their country in Viet Nam. They served disproportionately in combat roles putting them at increased risk. Just as with most of the soldiers, they returned with more than physical battle scars. In fact, some data seems to indicate that they suffered disproportionately from post-traumatic stress. More... Read Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls
Their return, however, was met with much more support and honor than with the average Viet Nam returnee. Their communities welcomed them as heroes and, as you will see in parades and cermonials, they are revered today.
Current Conflicts - The Shadow Wolves
Originally organized under an Act of Congress in 1972 in response to border issues along the Arizona-Mexican Border, the Shadow Wolves, expert Native American trackers have also been asked to train border guards and customs agents around the world tracking smugglers, in nations including Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Estonia, Kazakstan, and Uzbekistan.
When I was touring Antelope Canyon, our Navajo Guide brought up the subject of how Native American expertise is being used in the Middle East. The Shadow Wolves unit is now being used in the effort to hunt terrorists along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan by training regional border guards in Native American ancestral sign-reading methods. Unofficial Shadow Wolves Page.
The Warrior Tradition Lives On
Native Americans have a reason besides patriotism for enlisting in the armed services. They have a time-honored warrior tradition. "In part, the warrior tradition is a willingness to engage the enemy in battle. This characteristic has been clearly demonstrated by the courageous deeds of Native Americans in combat. However, the warrior tradition is best exemplified by the following qualities said to be inherent to most if not all Native American societies: strength, honor, pride, devotion, and wisdom. These qualities make a perfect fit with military tradition." Source: 20th Century Warriors: Native American Participation in the United States Military
Many tribes have a cleansing ceremony for returning veterans. The Navajo "Enemy Way" ceremony cleanses the returning veteran of the effects of death and heals the veteran in an assimilation back into native culture. Today this ceremony is used to heal those with illness, as well. More on the Enemy Way Ceremony.
Awareness as You Travel
I once was traveling on a highway in Window Rock, the Navajo Nation governmental center. On a rise there was a small old-fashioned graveyard. What I noticed that there were huge American flags flying in the winter wind. Had we not been running late in our return to Gallup, I would have stopped and paid my respects.
As you travel Native American lands, take an interest in the military history and the traditions honoring veterans. You will come away with a broader perspective on patriotism and on the sacrifices made by our Native American brothers and sisters.