Native warriors, neither gone nor forgotten

  • Published
  • By David Wahyahneetah Welch
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Beyond the stereotypical images of warriors on horseback raiding the plains, are the forgotten generations of American Indian soldiers and veterans. No war waged or fought on this continent, or by this country happened without Native American involvement. Even now, the call of the warrior is still a powerful force among American Indians. This is why Veteran's Day is the perfect holiday to fall in November, which is also Native American Heritage Month.

In a country they loved and cherished centuries before it became the United States, the Native American is one of the most forgotten elements of this land. As warriors, American Indians defended and fought for this country centuries before the European invasions.

An excerpt from Mr. Kenji Kawano's book "Warriors" captures that feeling: "I remember thinking that America had only white and black soldiers; I had never even seen an Indian soldier. Moreover, I found out later that most Americans had not, either. When I came to the Navajo Indian Reservation in 1974, I discovered that the American Indians fought in World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. It was a surprise."

This was Mr. Kawano's personal tribute to the men we remember as the Navajo Code Talkers. They were men who did not receive national recognition until 1969, during the 4th Marine Division Association reunion in Chicago.

Most "American" history textbooks shed little light on the contributions of native peoples. The pivotal roles of Native Americans throughout history often go unmentioned.

For instance, there were the little known Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I.

During World War II approximately 450 Navajo served in the U.S. Marine Corps as Code Talkers, while many more served in the other branches of the armed forces.

The Army's 45th Thunderbird Division sent Comanche Code Talkers to Europe and their own Navajo Code Talkers to the Pacific. The dedication of these men played pivotal roles in the successful campaigns of World War II. The Thunderbird Code Talkers were so useful during World War II the Army continued to use them during the Korean Conflict.

During World War II almost 25,000 warriors left the reservations to serve in the armed forces. By comparison, more natives served in the military per capita than any other ethnic group in America.

This dedication to service is often life-long as shown by the distinctive career of retired Master Sgt. Samuel Blatchford, a Navajo, who served combat tours in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and is the most decorated American Indian Veteran.

Five American Indians are Medal of Honor recipients. Three were with the 45th Thunderbird Division, during World War II: Jack Montgomery, an Oklahoma Cherokee; Ernest Childers, a Creek; and Van Barfoot, a Choctaw. The other two were awarded for their actions in Korea: Mitchell Red Cloud, a Winnebago, of the 19th Infantry Regiment; and an Eastern Cherokee from my home, the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina, Charles George.

Even in current conflicts, Native Americans serve proudly, many American Indian warriors have lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom to include the first American Indian service woman to die in combat, Lori Piestewa, of the Hopi Nation. The once controversial Phoenix landmark, Squaw Peak, was renamed Piestewa Peak in her honor.

American Indian veterans feel a great sense of pride in honoring their people while serving their country. When they return home or attend cultural gatherings, their veterans' status is honored.

The Native American has an ongoing history of honoring their warriors in song, to include songs for the Greasy Grass Battle -- aka Little Big Horn -- World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. Even now, songs are being made to honor the veterans of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.

Pride in a community's military service member is not unique to the American Indian culture. As members of America's Armed Forces, everyone in uniform shares that sense of pride in serving our country regardless of race, ethnicity or cultural background.

However, few communities honor veterans like Native American communities do. If you attend an American Indian gathering where they announce a veteran's song or dance, all military members, regardless of ethnicity, are being honored. These honor songs are the native way of respecting all veterans and sharing part of our culture, while acknowledging the camaraderie military service creates cross-culturally.

Just as times have changed, so has the American Indian, we are not just in history books and movies; some are members of today's total force component of active duty, Guard and reserve members serving here at Buckley in our complement of Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen. 

(Mr. Welch is a Charter Board Member of the Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute, retired first sergeant, lifelong diversity educator, former researcher/educator for the Cherokee Historical Association, and the former Cultural Advisor for the Scott AFB and Travis AFB Native American Heritage Councils. He has also been a key note speaker on American Indian educational topics for schools, universities, corporations world-wide and several federal agencies across the country.)