Posted by Mona
Memory & Memorial Day: A Native America perspective by Mona Halcomb
As we prepare to put away the final decorations of Memorial Day celebrations until next year’s festivities it is an opportune time to stop and consider the complexities this holiday holds for Native American and Alaskan Native (NA/AN) communities. While the contradictions may be many, they cannot overshadow the pride NA/AN have in serving their country. Attending any cultural event such as a pow wow will be evidence of this pride, where an Eagle Staff is first carried in then, the American flags, Indian Nation flags, and any other flags that are being displayed (e.g. the POW-MIA flag, a state flag, or the Pow Wow’s own flag etc…) The flags are raised while a flag song is preformed, which is followed by a veterans’ honoring song.
The patriotic commitment of NA/AN is not a new phenomenon. Even before NA/AN were citizens they served this country. Indian Scouts were used from 1812 until 1947. American Indians in the Military were finally granted U.S. citizenship in 1919. Five years later the Snyder Indian Citizen Act would grant all American Indians this.
While many think of military service with being a “warrior” and "men" there are many instances of women serving this country. During the American Revolution a Native woman by the name of Tyonajanegen was said to have fought along side her husband. In Alaska, the Alaska National Guard had over 60 women serve as of 1980. Four Indian nuns went to Cuba as nurses. And many have heard of the contribution made by Sacajawea. There are many more examples of contributions made by women however, for the sake of time I will leave this up to you to find them.
While the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II are credited with using their language to aid in the war efforts, this was also done in World War I with the Choctaw nation. During WWI it is estimated that as many as 12,000 Native Americans served their country. In light of the current immigration policies debate-taking place in Arizona, it is ironic that part of the Navajo Reservation is located in within it's borders. A Hopi woman by the named Piestewa from Arizona died in the Gulf War. In addition, Arizona is listed as one of the top five (5) states that NA/AN veterans are originally from. The battle over immigration, which targets “brown people” is brewing in Arizona where so many heroic minorities are from.
During WWII nearly 24% of Native American’s were involved in the war. With a population of less than 350,000, there were 44,000 NA/AN serving in WWII. In fact 99% of healthy Indian males registered for the draft during WWII; another 40,000 NA/AN left the reservation to work in industries that supported the war. NA/AN also made significant financial contributions to war bonds and organizations like the Red Cross and the Army & Navy Relief societies.
In the Vietnam War it is estimated that 42,000 NA/AN served. The report Senator Matsunage Project found higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among Native Americans. Of course there are many considerations that may contribute to this yet one in particular is usually agreed upon. The “stereotype” that all Indians are better trackers and scouts often put them in the front line and in dangerous situations more than their peers.
On a personal note, my dad served in both the Navy and the Army. This is something I did not even know this until at his funeral when both branches showed up to honor him. He had once told me a story, which is a perfect example of the dichotomy of this article. He had just returned from war, a number of his buddies and he got together to celebrate their safe return. A bartender refused to serve my dad a drink even though he was in his uniform and with his other returning comrades. Saying, "We don't serve Injuns here." A fight broke out because his friends were so outraged at the injustice of him not being able to be served a drink after fighting for this country.
According to the congressional testimony of Gordon Mansfield, a deputy secretary for veterans’ affairs, in 2004, Native American veterans are four times less likely to receive healthcare than other veterans. NA/AN’s are less likely to have health insurance than veterans of all races. And many NA/AN get caught up in bureaucracy, such as the case of former Army Sergeant Andres “Buzzy” Torres who has been fighting the VA for 21 years. He had barely enough to survive on and continues to get denied benefits even though he is unable to work due to being injured in the military and the care he received from that injury. The only reason he was able to manage was because of his wife’s income to supplement him; unfortunately he lost his wife to cancer. Now this man who sacrificed so much is about to lose everything because he is still fighting the VA. NA/AN veterans in general are more likely to have family incomes in the ranges below 30,000 dollars and less likely in the range of 50,000 dollars or more than all races.
For a community that believes it is an honor to serve, show strength, pride and devotion to a country who does not always reciprocate these stories and facts are extremely painful to hear. Native Americans have the highest per capita rate of enlistment of all races. Despite the long term affects of historical trauma Indian people have endured they remain very patriotic. Examples of this historical trauma which continues today include, ethnic cleansing which didn’t end with military defeat and occupation of their land. It has persisted for generations, losses that include language, religious practices, subsistence, traditional ways, taking children from homes, dress, and traditional healing practices. The toll on NA/AN is evident in their current economic status, educational attainment, health and life expectancy rates, and the number of NA/AN caught up in the cycle of addictions or the legal system.
And yet we see, more than 180,000 Native Americans and Alaska Native veterans living today. This number is projected to increase given the number of NA/AN serving in the military. Let us hope that our Veteran Affairs, Government and Society show the respect and support that these and all veterans deserve.
Badkhen, Anna. September 17, 2007. “Native American Veterans seen at risk Region lags in efforts to help stress-afflicted” Boston Globe
Holiday, L.F. and Gabriel Bell, Robert E. Klein, and Michael R. Wells. September 2006. “American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans: Lasting Contributions” Office of Policy, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Planning, and Preparedness, Department of Veterans Affairs.