Native Veterans: Guardians of the Land

   By Helen Oliff

Service to one’s land and community is deeply ingrained in Native American culture, and this is evident in their distinguished history of military service. Native Americans have the highest rate of military service of any race in the U.S. What’s more, Native American veterans  joined in for every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War.

This tradition of military service can be traced back to the cultural significance of the warrior role within many Tribal communities. Granted, not all tribes have a warrior tradition – some emphasize traditions of peace and diplomacy. But for those that do, the warrior tradition goes beyond physical fighting to a broader commitment: being caretakers, community leaders, and protectors. Now, the fight for Indian country has expanded to include social and political advocacy.

When asked about serving a country that has served them poorly, World War II veteran Charles Shay of the Penobscot Nation, who turns 100 on June 27, put it best. He said, “When I went into military service, we were second-class citizens in our own country, but I served my country. We were defending our own country, our land. This was my reason for doing what I have done.”

Some Indigenous people are skeptical about enlistment and the impact of leaving their family and community. Yet for many, military service puts an opportunity for economic and personal growth within reach.

Ultimately, Native Americans have a long, nuanced, and proud history overall, and their contributions have not gone unnoticed this Independence Day. For example, the Navajo Code Talkers are legendary for creating a code in their language to share sensitive information during WWII. This has often been credited with  winning the war in the Pacific Theatre in 1945. Another example is the Native women. Like countless women in America’s history, Indigenous women weren’t afraid to step up and support as nurses. Their roles have evolved, and today nearly 20% of all Native American service members are women.

Native American veterans continue to embody the warrior spirit in all facets of life, coming together from all walks of life to fight for Native rights and Tribal sovereignty. Like other traditions, the warrior spirit will live on … adapting and evolving with each generation. We must ensure that their legacy of service and sacrifice is honored and remembered.