National POW/MIA Recognition Day

How do I as a civilian even begin to talk about this? It’s a heavy thing and a lot to wrap my head around… the meaning of National POW/MIA Recognition Day for Native Americans.

A few days ago, I was walking in the rain with my dog on a cold morning on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. I couldn’t help but complain and think, “This is miserable.” Then, I got to thinking about Native Americans fighting in wars from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq. In my head, I pictured things like the smoke and heat of Little Big Horn and ambushes in the humid jungles of Viet Nam. On the ground, I could see the dead and dying. But, what about those men and women who seemingly turned to ghosts on the battlefield? Their families left to wonder about the fate of a relative who became a prisoner of war or went missing in action. These are truly miserable things.

Yet, while thinking about these military members now listed as POW/MIA, another thought persisted. While Native Americans may make up a small fraction of the near 2000 service members still unaccounted for from the Viet Nam War, the true number of American Indian POWs is significantly higher.

It only takes one Google search to see what I mean. For example, if you Google “Native American Prisoners of War,” you will see multiple links leading to the same place:  the 2010 TED Talk by Aaron Huey about his experience of photographing poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In his opening dialogue, Huey refers to Pine Ridge as “Prisoner of War Camp Number 334.” I’ve heard others use this expression before, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out where it originated. Despite how the name may have come about, one thing is clear:  history has designated many Indian reservations as POW camps, whether officially or not.

One thing from Huey’s talk struck me as staggeringly powerful, and moreover, staggeringly sad:

“The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.’ This is how we came to own these United States. This is the legacy of manifest destiny. Prisoners are still born into prisoner-of-war camps long after the guards are gone.”

On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which is September 19th, I ask that you remember all U.S. military personnel – especially those declared as Prisoners of War or Missing in Action. And, as you remember them, I ask that you remember Native Americans too. Remember all the losses and sacrifices they made at the hands of the U.S. to become the nation we know today.

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