Way of the Warrior uses personal stories of heroes and soldiers to examine the warrior ethic in Indian Country and understand why military service is so highly valued in native communities. These gripping stories from WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam weave a tapestry of positive and negative themes: the warrior ethic, prejudice and stereotypes, forced assimilation, poverty, cultural pride, redemptive acts and healing. The documentary uses historical footage, period photographs, native music, personal diaries and interviews to reveal what it means to be "ogichidaa," one who protects and follows the way of the warrior.
During WWI, at least 12,000 Native American men enlisted in the military, even though many of them were not citizens and not required to serve. The most popular recruitment centers were Indian Boarding Schools—often harsh places of forced assimilation where Indian children marched to classes and native boys drilled in cadet uniforms. This repressive environment, according to historian Thomas Britten, promoted "a seamless transition from boarding schools to training camps to the front lines."
Pvt. Edward DeNomie (Bad River Ojibwe), who learned to read and write English at the Tomah Indian Boarding School in western Wisconsin, kept a diary of his combat experiences in the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division. His entries describe machine gun fire, poison gas attacks, and the day he lost his friend, Chub, by shrapnel.
What motivated tribal members like DeNomie to volunteer for service? Some Native American soldiers served because of economics. Some wanted adventure. Some belonged to "warrior" clans. Others served out of a sense of patriotism, both to their own Indian nations and to the United States. During World War II, some Indian women joined the war effort, serving in units like the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).
The Cold War period brought cold comfort to Native Americans. Again, native soldiers volunteered to serve in the Korean Conflict in percentages that far exceeded their numbers in the general population. Despite their sacrifices, however, at home Indian vets suffered the indignity of job discrimination and vilification in popular Hollywood "Cowboy and Indian" movies.
hroughout the 20th century, Native soldiers disproportionately performed the most dangerous assignments in the U.S. military, perhaps because of a mistaken belief that somehow Indians were innately better at war. Stereotypes, imposed by white commanders but sometimes willingly assumed by Indian soldiers themselves, had deadly consequences. In World War I, the casualty rate of Native soldiers was five times that of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) as a whole. In Vietnam, Native soldiers were far more likely to see moderate-to-heavy combat than non-natives.
Because they were more likely to see the horror of war up close, native soldiers, including Vietnam War combat marine Jim Northrup (Fond du Lac Anishinaabe), also were more likely to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Northrup found that writing about his combat experiences helped him keep his PTSD under control. In this excerpt from his poem, entitled "Walking Point"—reference to the soldier who walks in front of the patrol "scouting" for danger—Northrup addresses his own PTSD.
...He amused himself as we walked along
The old story about bullets… Ha.
Don't sweat the one that's got your name on it,
Worry about the one addressed:
To Whom It May Concern.
On another level his mind churned with
Rifle, M-14, Caliber 7.62 mm, a gas operated,
Magazine fed, air cooled, semi-automatic
Weight-12 pounds with 20 rounds
Sustained Rate of Fire-30 rounds per minute
Effective range-460 meters
Hand Grenade, M-26,
And so on and on and on.
Movement! Something is moving up there!
Drop to the mud, rifle pointing at the unknown,
Looks like two of them, hunting him.
They have rifles but he saw them first.
The Marine Corps takes over,
Breathe, Relax, Aim, Slack, Squeeze.
The shooting is over in five seconds.
The shakes are over in a half hour.
The memories are over… never.
Many of the veterans interviewed described their tribes' purification rituals for returning soldiers, including sweat lodge ceremonies, talking circles, and the Hopi practice of giving their returning soldiers new names. Those who had undergone the rituals said these ceremonies helped minimize the effects of PTSD. Many expressed concern about the re-adjustment of the thousands of native and non-native soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.