One of the great ironies of American history is that Indigenous peoples have fought in every war the United States made a commitment, and yet Native Americans did not obtain citizenship until 1924, and their access to the vote depended on each state (Utah was the last to grant suffrage in 1962).
Despite this, their commitment to this country continues, with no other demographic serving in the armed forces at the same rate as Native Americans. Because November celebrates Native American Heritage Month and Veterans Day, we want to explore the “warrior spirit” that compels nearly one in five Native Americans to serve a country that has not always served them.
While there is no single definition of the warrior spirit, most Native Americans cite a commitment to protect their community coupled with a deep dedication to the land. Traditionally, this has meant physically fighting for one’s native nation. Indigenous peoples fought on both sides of the War of Independence, and many attribute the American victory to the adoption of Indigenous military tactics. During the civil war, tribal nations fought again on both sides, aligning themselves with the defense of their homeland. Both sides had native brigadier generals; a Cherokee on the Confederate side and a Seneca for the Union.
Due to the perceived bravery and high skill of Native American soldiers, from WWI onwards they were given dangerous assignments more often and died at much higher rates than any other group. It was during this war that the military began to recognize the potential to use Indigenous languages ââas codes. The Choctaws transmitted orders in their mother tongue that the Germans could not decipher, paving the way for Code Talkers in World War II.
But it is short-sighted to focus solely on the militaristic aspects of the warrior spirit. At the heart of a warrior are enduring Indigenous principles that transcend combat tactics. Jamescita Peshlakai, a Navajo DinÃ© who served in the Gulf War, says a warrior reflects the strength of her people: âWe stand up for family, we stand for what we love, we are the keepers of knowledge, and ultimately we have our own. word people go. Peshlakai has gone from a strategy on the battlefield to a strategy in the Arizona State Senate, where she represents the interests of her people.
The warrior spirit is deeply linked to the defense and preservation of sacred lands, as the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation repurchasing their ancestral lands to build an interpretive center at the site of the Bear River Massacre, or Native Americans of many tribes fighting for the environment against the Keystone pipeline.
For indigenous peoples, land is not something to be conquered, owned or broken up. There is a reciprocity between people and the earth: if we protect and support it, it will protect us and support us.
As a poet of Laguna Pueblo Paula Gunn Allen wrote: âWe are the earth. As far as I know, this is the basic idea that permeates the lives of American Indians. ”
It seems appropriate that Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position, is Secretary of the Interior, responsible for maintaining and protecting federal lands and natural resources. Although Haaland never served in the military, both of his parents did. Like them, she protects the country, in her case by being the steward of her land.
As we celebrate the indigenous peoples of America, let us pay tribute to those who have served or still serve our country, who feel called by the spirit of war to protect lives and land. As an elder Air Force Captain DJ Vanas wrote: âA warrior fights for something greater than himself, sets an example and does not focus on what he can achieve, but on what he can do for others. In a constantly changing world, the concept of the traditional warrior remains unchanged.
Remember, this is not about battle, ego, or glory; it’s about sacrifice, service, honor and making sure the land is there to feed our children.
Brenda Beyal, a Navajo / DinÃ©, leads the Native American Studies Curriculum Initiative for the BYU ARTS partnership. In 2016, Beyal was honored by the Utah Education Network as the American Graduate Champion. Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and writer for the Native American Program for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women and Leadership Project, and The Exponent.