The astonishing, heartbreaking, inspiring, and largely-untold story of Native Americans in the United States military.
The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children - the future of humanity.
– Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux
It’s part of an ancient tradition, and more - for some Native American tribes, a vital expression of their spirit. They have fought in every war the United States has waged since the nation began.
Being a warrior is more than about fighting, it is about service to the community and protection of their homeland.
The Evolution of the Warrior Tradition
What being a warrior means in Native American cultures has evolved over centuries with generational attitude shifts, outside influences, and complicated relationships with the United States.
Patty Loew, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and a consultant for The Warrior Tradition, describes the tradition as a broader interpretation of a warrior that includes being a protector and a provider.
“Native men and women fill that role through military service, through protecting the language, guarding the culture, providing food, shelter, education, and medical assistance to other community members. So for me, the warrior tradition is defined more broadly than just combat."
Chuck Boers, a member of the Lipan Apache tribe, agrees that the warrior tradition isn’t always about combat. It’s about keeping the peace and making sure traditions and cultures stay aligned with values.
Those values have translated to higher rates of Native Americans serving in the military. That tradition continued for many generations in the Native American population because the warrior path was a significant way of life.
"We have the highest per-capita service rate out of any group in America because of the fact that our native people have always wanted to fulfill that warrior path," said D.J. Vanas, member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
Comanche Indians Veterans Association Celebration and Powwow
A part of that tradition was the powwow, an honor dance to celebrate and recognize veterans for their service. Rhonda Williams, Comanche member, explains that the powwow honors tradition and the mere existence of Native Americans, that they are still here. There is a sense of gratitude toward veterans that they are able to go out and protect and defend the United States and their communities while preserving their Native American heritage.
However, the definition of what it means to be a warrior is changing. There's been an evolution of who is identified as a warrior. Traditionally, males filled the role of a warrior. But Leslie Montemayor, member of the Muskogee Creek, says that it wasn’t because they lacked the ability, “they just weren’t usually asked or called upon to fill that role.”
Women had divergent roles that didn't always include military or leadership roles. They were seen as protectors of the home and the family. It was perceived that women weren't capable of serving in the military or on the front lines.
"I think more of the elders thought women couldn't join," said Elizabeth Perez, North Folk Rancheria of Mono Indians. "I had more push back from the elders."
That perception has changed with more women joining the military and taking on roles that women who joined earlier didn't do. For women in the military today, Perez believes that many doors have opened and ceilings are finally breaking.
Elizabeth Perez, North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians US Navy
"So in joining the military, I got to reflect on what is the strength of indigenous people, indigenous women," said Jamescita Peshlakai, Dine, Navajo Nation. "And we really are warriors because we defend the family, we defend what we love, we are the keepers of knowledge, and ultimately we have a say in where our people are going."
As the view of what it means to be a warrior is evolving, it is moving away from just combat and military. For Native people, they are fighting to protect more than just their land. It's their history and their people that they are protecting.
"There's this questioning now that I see on the part of younger native people asking, do we have to define a warrior as combat or participation in the US military," said Loew. "Can we think about warrior traditions differently? Can we say that someone willing to put their life on the line at an environmental protest, such as the Dakota Access pipeline water protectors, are they warriors?”
Activism has emerged as a different kind of "front line" in which Native people are validating their warrior tradition. Though it was a losing battle at Standing Rock for the water protectors, their message and purpose were only strengthened. It triggered a movement of solidarity, which to Loew, is the real warrior tradition.
The water protectors at Standing Rock
The fight continues for Native men and women. America has adopted the warrior tradition and has applied it to its military recruitment campaign. As Native Americans try to bring back what's been taken away, the warrior tradition is something they'd like to keep.
"What I'd like to tell Americans about the warrior tradition is that it's not really about them," said Jeffery Means, Oglala Lakota. "It's about Native Americans reclaiming their identity, their sovereignty in a period where they've lost so much of it because of assimilation and colonization."
Native Americans and their traditions are resilient and alive. As the next generations come, there is a sense of hope that they will take ownership of their culture and learn the warrior ways. For elders, that sense of hope is embodied at powwows -- in a new singer, dancer, or veteran joining in. A new warrior.