Honoring Native Veterans

native american veterans
Photo courtesy of the United States National Archives and Records Administration

Did you know that Native Americans serve in the US armed forces at a rate five times higher than any other ethnic group? Not only that, but 20% of Native service members are women, compared to 15.6% of all other service member groups. Honoring our veterans is interwoven into our gatherings and is a normal part of tribal life. Every powwow, large tribal meeting, or gathering of nations includes an honor guard and often an honor song for those who have served our communities in the military.

This month marks the observance of Veteran’s Day, an annual commemoration of the people who have served in the United States armed forces. I’ve spent the past few days thinking a lot about the participation of American Indians in America’s wars and wanting to better understand it. I am pained by the suffering that war brings to all people. My own (non-Native) half-brother was broken by his experiences while serving two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I don’t easily forgive the people who broke him.

Even so, I have remained curious about why so many Indians, dealing with a government that doesn’t keep its promises and our shared histories of colonization and broken treaties, would fight for that same government and nation. I have many Potawatomi family members—uncles, cousins, and grandfathers before them—who have served or are still serving.

The history of Native participation in the military is as long as the country itself. Probably the most well-known Native soldiers are the code talkers, over 400 Marines from 15 Native nations, including the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche tribes, who utilized their Indigenous languages to radio transmit secret messages that could not be translated by Germany or her allies. While their work is credited with contributing greatly to the successful end of WWII against the Nazis and their allies, the soldiers doing the work were not fully recognized until 2001, when code talkers received congressional medals for their service.

It’s important to note that compulsory service, while a part of the picture, doesn’t capture the entire scope of Native involvement. In the Vietnam War, 90% of the 42,000 Native American soldiers who served were volunteers.

This year, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) released a video featuring several service members from a variety of tribal nations who each shared their background and reasons for their service. The video, “Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces,” is a beautiful look at the contributions and sacrifices of our siblings, parents, cousins, and grandparents. The reasons for their service are as diverse as the people themselves.

Miyasha Hillaire (Lummi/Coville), entered the US Coast Guard because of her love of the water. She participated in her first canoe journey at age 15, and asked herself, “How can I be on the water and support myself? How can I be on the water and protect it?” Joining the Coast Guard was a natural fit for her passion and relationship with the water.

Another interviewee, Mniluzahe Berg (Oglala Lakota), is the brother of Black Horse, a Native man who was killed by the Denver police during a mental health crisis. Following this terrible loss, Berg enlisted into the Navy and, following a vision of the spirit of his brother, later became a tribal cop for his home reservation. He explains that coming from “a warrior society” is a part of him, and that “when our community needs us and calls upon us, we are able to be there for them.”

Shane Ortega (Tuscarora) is a transgender Marine veteran who enlisted in order to access economic opportunities otherwise inaccessible to him. Not only did he serve in combat, but he later joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and helped to end the trans military ban.

Hearing from these veterans helps me to better understand their service, even with the complexities of United States history. Alan Kale’iolani Hoe, a Native Hawaiian elder with a lifetime of service in the US Army, wonderfully captures the complexity of my question when he acknowledges that this country has made many mistakes, including (and especially) in the treatment of Native Hawaiians and Native Americans. When asked what it means to be a warrior, he explains, “I don’t really think of it in those terms. To me, it is just who I am.”

What all these people have in common is courage and a self-sacrificing spirit. They honor their communities, their ancestors, and future generations by generously offering themselves in service to their nation and homelands. Many of them have paid dearly for these efforts. I am moved by these people and offer my respect and gratitude. Chi-miigwech to our veterans, today and every day.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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