View Full Version : Celebrating Their Service to U.S.

07-21-03, 09:38 AM
Celebrating Their Service to U.S.

By Andrew Metz
Staff Correspondent

Salamanca, N.Y. -- One in an occasional series on American Indians in the 21st Century

The words were issued like awards: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. With each evocation of an American war, Indian soldiers proudly fell into formation at the center of a circle of thousands.

They wore eagle feathers and insignia of their service: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. They clutched canes and rifles, ceremonial staffs and, at times, each other, as their people honored them with the songs and dances bestowed on native warriors.

"Let them see how I can be. Even though the Europeans that invaded our shores wanted to do away with the Indian, and they are still persisting, I am still standing," said Clayton Logan, a Vietnam veteran from the Seneca tribe, who yesterday, eagle staff in hand, led the processional of fellow soldiers into a huge pow-wow here on the Allegheny Indian Reservation.

American Indians, mostly of the Iroquois tribes, are converging on this remote reservation town at the fringe of western New York to celebrate their warriors and affirm one of the most intriguing phenomena of their culture. Despite centuries of oppression, America's first people have consistently fought for a country that once sought to obliterate them.

From the colonial inception of U.S. militias to the recent invasion of Iraq, Indians have served and died as infantrymen and decorated officers, even before they were afforded the rights and privileges of citizens.

They have joined the armed services in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, yet have long languished on the periphery. Today, however, as Indians across the country are defying the epitaph of extinction ascribed to them, this significant role in the military -- and its prominent place in native culture -- is emerging from the historical shadows.

Whether through the recent popularization of the Navajos who used undecipherable codes in World War II, or the death of Pvt. Lori Piestewa, the first woman and Indian killed in the latest Iraq war, Indian warriors are asserting their presence as integral players in this country's unfolding history, and their own.

"Our Native American veterans have not been honored in the right way," said Jack Johnson, a Mohawk, who served in the Navy during the Korean War era and 11 years ago founded the North American Iroquois Veterans Association, which runs the event at a grassy park here. "Look how long it took for the Codetalkers to be honored, since World War II."

The weekend-long veterans' pow-wow has burgeoned into one of the largest such gatherings anywhere, Johnson said, complete with foods and crafts, major dance and drumming competitions. The centerpieces, though, are the military men and women, who come in everything from traditional dress to combat gear and hail from the modern conflicts and the peacetimes.

It is unclear exactly how many Indian veterans and active duty personnel there are, mainly because of the growing number of people identifying themselves with native ancestry. Indian scholars and veterans officials estimate that at least 11 percent of the population today have served, with the ratio tens of times higher on many reservations and during conflicts of the past century. The rate can be as high as 8 in 10 Indian males, said Charles Nesby, director of the federal Center for Minority Veterans.

All over Indian country, generation after generation has passed through the military, mostly as volunteers, re-emerging from the experience to a native culture that embraces their sacrifice and counts on their continued service.

"Some of the ceremonies and the songs and the stories could not be kept alive unless there were veterans, unless there were warriors," said Tom Holm, a professor at the University of Arizona and a Cherokee/Creek Indian who fought as a Marine in Vietnam.

"It is not a glorification of war," said Holm, the author of the book "Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native America Veterans of the Vietnam War." "It is this recurrence of ceremony and identity that is important. You are in it not because you so much want to serve the United States. You are serving your own culture."

The harsh realities of reservation life have also made the military a popular escape route, propelling this complicated tradition forward, in a way, requiring Indians to claim a dual citizenship, Indian and American.

"I have allegiance to both," said Chuck Nephew, a Seneca Vietnam vet, who commands the Iroquois outpost of the American Legion on a reservation north of here. Like most of his male relatives, Nephew volunteered for duty, a path he said was inevitable.

"It is just the way we were brought up and what we believe," he said, as he and fellow veterans laced-up combat boots and donned tunics with colorful ribbons for each branch of the service.

Indeed, as long as there have been colonizers on this continent, Indians have sent their soldiers to war, often as allies to the colonizers, honoring peace treaties. There were Indian generals in both the Union and Confederate armies. Some tribes even declared war on U.S. enemies, including the Oglala Sioux and Iroquois on Nazi Germany, according to Indian scholars.

And the robust military tradition extends to Indian women, too.

Piestewa's mother, Percy, said in a telephone interview that if any good has come of her daughter's death, it is a budding appreciation for Indian military service. "It is the one thing that I am glad about," she said. "Native Americans are generally put down and stereotyped, but with the passing of Lori, Native Americans are being recognized in a positive way."

At the Iroquois ceremony yesterday, there was special attention paid to Col. Angela O'Rourke, a Mohawk military intelligence officer for more than 20 years before she was involved in a car accident that left her blind.

"All these lands were our peoples," she said yesterday, holding the lead of her guide dog. "Whether it's right or wrong, who has it now, that can't be changed and it doesn't mean that we cannot honor the land even if that means our people have to go to the service and die."

For all the patriotic spirit, though, fighting America's wars has left its psychic scars on Indians, particularly those who served in Vietnam.

"This time they were the Cavalry and it was kind of like what the Cavalry did to us and they had to reconcile that when they were there and when they came back," said Harold Barse, a Kioiwa who counsels vets in Oklahoma, home to one of the largest Indian populations in the country.

And there are still some Indians who simply cannot reconcile or write off to irony this yanking of allegiances.

"We have been a target population for almost 200 years and the effort has been to transform us into good hardworking American taxpayers... " said Robert Odawi Porter, the director of the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship at Syracuse University's law school.

"Parading the American flag to the tune of traditional Indian music and dance typifies the internal conflict and the dysfunction and perhaps the harmony and beauty of American indigenous life today," said Porter, the Senecas' former Attorney General. " You will find people who think that it is an amazing blend of culture and then there are those like me who view it as a tragedy."

On the grounds of this reservation yesterday, however, any bitter tension was set aside, at least for the moment, while another history was being written.

"We are warriors from way back. We are buried in Gettysburg and all over," said George Heron, a World War II Navy vet and a former president of the Seneca Nation. "You've heard the saying, 'if you don't like it, go back to where you came from.' Well, we can't do that. This is where we are from."
Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.




07-21-03, 09:40 AM
A Struggle for History
A people who survived now seek to thrive in the 21st century

By Andrew Metz

June 26, 2003

Little Bighorn National Monument, Mont. -- In the sagebrush and tall grass that reach to the edge of the mountains beyond here, the grandsons and granddaughters of great Indian warriors greeted the first light of day like victors.

As sun warmed the hard Plains yesterday, they trudged on foot and horseback, up hills and berms soaked with the spirits of their forefathers and those of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry, who were wiped out 127 years ago in the legendary Battle of Little Bighorn.

With meditation and cheers, drum-beating and song, Indians in the thousands - men, women and children - symbolically reclaimed this sacred ground and a place at the shrine to one of America's most storied skirmishes.

"It took 127 years to get this," said Geofredo Little Bird, a Northern Cheyenne Indian, leading daybreak prayers on a ridge below a dramatic bronze memorial dedicated yesterday to the warriors and their victory June 25, 1876. "They were trying to exterminate all the tribes from the face of the earth. But we are still here."

For more than a century, the austere battlefield on the Crow Indian Reservation has had a memorial and grave markers for Custer and more than 260 troopers, while any trace of the Indians' participation, as winners or as scouts who died alongside the cavalrymen, was largely invisible. Now, after years of controversy, foot-dragging and prejudice, American Indians can finally point to this site and see something of their own here, too: a sculpture of three "spirit warriors" on horseback with a woman trailing behind and a circular stone dugout with plaques for the names of the warriors who fell.

"This is the moment we have been waiting for," said Little Bird, who traces his relatives to the Bighorn warriors and is a spiritual adviser to his tribe's leader. "This memorial shows us as we are today, Native American people. We belong here now."

The dedication of the $2.3 million memorial filled the rolling hills with Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Arikara and is a major achievement for the Indians, who persisted in the face of an oppression that pushed them toward extinction. In broader terms, the long campaign to round out the historical record of that iconic battle reflects a new, dynamic time in Indian Country, where Indians from New York - home to the sixth largest Indian population in the nation - to the Great Plains are making strides unseen in generations.

All across the United States, on reservations and in cities, a world of achievement is quietly under way, even as the shackles of history continue to pull on America's first people.

As an ethnic minority, the more than 2.5 million Indians still occupy the outer reaches of most mainstream indices: they live in more crowded conditions and far deeper poverty, receive less schooling and suffer from higher rates of social and medical ills than other Americans. The cornerstones of their identity - language, culture and sovereignty - are still fragile and struggling for solid footing. But at the same time, fresh energy is promising a new place for American Indians in the 21st century.

"We have come through extraordinarily trying times over these two centuries, and we have emerged strong ... In the face of policies aimed at ensuring our destruction, we have chosen survival," Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in an address earlier this year. "Now we seek not just to survive but to thrive."

The events taking place in Indian County are as varied as the more than 500 tribes themselves, but from New Mexico to New England, educators and activists, entrepreneurs and academics, progressives and traditionalists are sounding similar chords.

Beyond the popular stories of wealth that a small collection of tribes has earned from casino gambling in recent years, economic and social development is spreading, from bed-and-breakfasts and construction firms, to media outlets and banking. American Indians are making headway at reviving native languages and culture through immersion programs and Indian colleges. The American Indian population is actually growing and outpacing other ethnic minorities. And as American Indian lawyers and activists are fighting harder than ever against perceived injustices, there have been important resolutions to age-old land claims and advances in the courtrooms of this country, most notably in the pursuit of billions of dollars in unaccounted-for Indian money held in trust by the federal government.

Like the fight to have Indians recognized at the Little Bighorn, much of the action has taken years to gain momentum and has been met with stiff resistance.

"A lot of things that have been percolating in Indian Country for some time are coming together now and beginning to attract some attention," said C. Matthew Snipp, an American Indian demographer at Stanford University. "The whole idea of the vanishing American was a major cultural trope through the 19th and much of the 20th century and that has now become sort of a quaint notion that was more wishful thinking than anything else."

"The fight over Little Bighorn memorial," he said, "and how it was to be portrayed is emblematic of the struggle for history; here is this cultural struggle between Indian people on the one hand and this glorified history that has come to be accepted as the truth."

Indeed, generations of Americans were introduced to this battle as Custer's Last Stand, a moniker that persists today. The ceremonies yesterday seemed as much about setting the record straight as celebration and reverence.

"One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, our warriors defended our beliefs, and we are here to honor, not mourn these warriors," George Amiotte, an Oglala Sioux told hundreds of his people gathered in a circle around the memorial. As prayers and dances and drumming echoed through the valley along the Little Big Horn River, where as many as 7,000 Indians were said to be camped when they were attacked by Custer, many in the crowd spoke of the tragic irony of the famous Indian victory being honored.

"Even though the battle was won, our way of life completely changed forever," said Clifford Long Sioux, a Northern Cheyenne Indian and early adocate for the memorial.

After Custer's stunning defeat, in which fewer than 100 Indians were believed killed, the U.S. government stepped up its campaign against the tribes, exacting a treacherous toll that American Indians consider nothing short of attempted genocide.

Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton, whose agency has long borne the brunt of the criticism for the handling of Indian affairs, suggested to the audience that the memorial would help speed overdue reconciliation.

"Of course, we cannot reclaim or change the past. The wrongs, the battles and the broken promises remain as they are written into history," Norton said. But, she said, "today's ceremony finally lets healing songs begin in this place."

The fight for the memorial is almost as epic as the battle itself. As far back as 1925, descendants of the Indian warriors were calling for official recognition. Over the years, there were attempts to plant plaques and markers, but it wasn't until 1991 that Congress, spurred on by the persistence of the lone Indian representative, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), approved changing the name of the site from Custer National to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. At that time they also authorized an Indian memorial, but no funds were appropriated until two years ago.

Every step was met with controversy, from the location across from the granite Custer obelisk to the design, which was done by a non-Indian, to the funding, which unlike many other memorials was paid for with public money.

And amid the elation yesterday, there were still lingering critics of the end result.

"Unfortunately, this battleground and the Seventh Cavalry have become lightning rods for all the troubles that the government has laid at the doorsteps of the Indians," said Kevin Connelly, president of the Custer Battlefield Historical Museum Association, which long opposed the memorial. Connelly, who was milling around the grounds, said he was not opposed to marking the Indian role in the battle, but disagreed with the placement and the public funding.

"At this point it is a done deal," he said. "It has come to pass and it is reality."

Even with shrill victory calls echoing off the hills and traditional dress everywhere, some Indians, too, regarded the site with a tinge of resignation.

"There will never be a day when everything will be made up to us," said Emmanuel Red Bear, a great-great-grandson of both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, two of the most fabled leaders of the battle, who accompanied members of his Sioux tribe in traditional songs with a buffalo hide drum. "But coming back here is like a healing for us."

Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian from North Dakota and a former superintendent of the national monument who was instrumental in pushing for it, said the criticism is healthy and understandable.

"Sure I have bitterness. The bitterness I have is we people in reservations who don't have adequate water, adequate housing, adequate health care. But it's a start and it's progress," he said. "We're taking steps in the right direction."
Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.