Unseen Service

There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, all with their unique customs and traditions, and military service has been a consistent tradition among them. How is it that Native Americans, who serve more per capita than any other racial group, receive little recognition for their sacrifices at home and overseas? It is not surprising that Native American military service receives inadequate visibility. Native Americans, in general, receive limited visibility as the government and private corporations attempt to erase Native Americans and leave them in the past to pursue exploitative interests. When we think of Native Americans as the past and not the present or future, we are actively participating in the process of erasure. It is therefore essential to bring awareness to Native Americans’ military service because military service is a form of model citizenry that we as a country hold in high regard. We owe it to Native American veterans and service members to pay homage to their service and to bring visibility to their sacrifices. In this op-ed, we will attempt to give readers insight into the sacrifices and struggles by Native American military members, and explore why Native Americans serve in the first place.

Earlier this year, Native Americans finally received recognition, after two decades of organizing, for their military service with a memorial dedicated to Native American military veterans. The memorial is in Washington, D.C., on the Mall outside of the National Museum of the American Indian. The memorial, called “Warriors’ Circle of Honor,” honors the fact that Native Americans have served in every war dating back to the Revolutionary War. Over 150,000 Native Americans and Alaska Natives are active service members and veterans of the U.S. military. Native Americans have paid the ultimate price to preserve freedom both at home and abroad. They have resisted the eradication of their culture while simultaneously joining the ranks of the U.S. military to fight America’s enemies.

Historically, many have probably heard of the famous Code Talkers who served during WWII. During WWII, over 44,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. military, and the Code Talkers were instrumental in winning battles during the war. The Code Talkers were Navajos who transmitted tactical information through radio communications utilizing the Navajo language. The Navajos were chosen because of the complexity of their language, and because it was not written, it was impossible for enemies to decipher. Former Marine Corps Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez details the importance of the Code Talkers in his memoir “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.” Chester participated in famous battles including Peleliu and Guadalcanal, where Code Talkers proved to be instrumental in the combat operations that resulted in decisive military victories for the Marines.

Chester’s story highlights the many struggles of Native Americans — and the U.S. government’s exploitation. Throughout his early life, Chester was abused by teachers at boarding school, forced to learn a language and culture different from his own, and treated as less than a citizen by the nation, which had previously stolen his people’s land and forced him to live on a reservation. In the end, Chester still chose to lie about his age and enlist in the USMC. Chester joined because he saw the attack on Pearl Harbor as an attack on himself and his family’s land. “We have always felt a deep allegiance to our motherland, our Navajo Nation and our families; to this allegiance is linked a sincere desire to protect all three,” Chester wrote in his memoir.

Since the attacks on 9/11, almost 19 percent of Native Americans have served in the U.S. military while on average 14 percent of other racial groups serve in the military. This past Veterans Day, PBS aired “The Warrior Tradition,” a documentary on the untold story of Native Americans in the U.S. military. The documentary shares some stories from individuals who answer why anyone would want to serve and fight for a country that has tried to wipe them out. “What sets [Native Americans] apart and why our service rates are so high in our native communities is because of the warrior tradition. To us, [serving in the military] is not just a cultural perspective, but it’s also an obligation, it’s a commitment. And it also connects to our spirituality as well,” said D.J. Vanas, military veteran and member of the Odawa Tribe. The film also serves as a resource for non-Natives to learn about “how many veterans the Seneca Nation has throughout its history,” said Angela Kennedy, Seneca Nation member and resident of Salamanca, New York. “What I really want people to get out of these films is that we’re still alive and our culture is thriving.”

Reservations strip Native Americans of their warrior culture, said Jeff Means, a member of the Ogala Sioux Tribe and Marine Corps veteran, but serving in the military helps them “revitalize their warrior tradition.” When asked about the exploitative nature of serving in the U.S. military, he replied, “Native Americans have been forced into this horrible economic and cultural position on reservations; the U.S. and the military exploit that by providing the military as an option out of poverty and hopelessness.”

Native American service members often face many challenges as they integrate back into their communities. After their service has ended Native Americans are “forgotten and left to fight to keep what is rightfully ours — our natural resources, water and land were being exploited by energy companies and by our own federal government,” said Peter MacDonald, a Navajo and former Marine Code Talker from WWII.

These perspectives are critical to giving us a better understanding of why Native Americans have served a country that has not served them. By taking the time to watch or read media that includes Native American military service, we can enable them to gain some visibility when we think of those who are serving overseas. There are some though who are not here today to give us their perspective because they paid the ultimate sacrifice. Lori Piestewa was the first American servicewoman killed in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. She was also the first Hopi woman and the first Native American woman to die in combat in service of the United States. Brett L. Lundstrom (Oglala Sioux Tribe) was killed by small arms fire during a battle near Fallujah during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006 while serving in the Marine Corps. Tanner J. O’Leary (Cheyenne) was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2007 while serving in the Army. As of October 2012, an estimated 70 Native Americans have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a place like Amherst College, where the majority of the student population is largely disconnected from the military, it is crucial to educate ourselves on the sacrifices made by Native Americans to preserve the freedoms we enjoy every day. Further, we must be aware of their sacrifices of yesterday and today so that Native Americans’ visibility is not lost. Native Americans continue to serve in every branch of the armed forces today and sacrifice themselves for a country that has tried and still tries to erase them. It is each reader’s responsibility to educate themselves on the sacrifices Native Americans have made so we can enjoy the freedoms we do each day.