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November 28, 2017

Long journey: A traditional kayak frame comes to New York

NY museum staff at kayak frame welcoming ceremony si
Members of the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York hold a welcoming ceremony for a kayak frame built in the traditional Yup'ik way at the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska. A testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the Native cultures of the Arctic, the kayak frame will become a teaching exhibit when the New York museum's imagiNATIONS Activity Center opens this May.

In May 2018, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York will unveil a brand-new exhibition space, the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, or iAC. The center will be geared towards a young audience, offering hands-on interaction with the origins and outcomes of Native innovation. One section of the iAC will highlight the kayak, an invention designed by the Inuit, Yup'ik, and Aleut people as long as 4,000 years ago. The focal point of this section will be a full-size traditional Yup’ik kayak frame—15 feet of historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales. Acquired by the museum from the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska, the frame was built by Troy and Ethan Wilkinson with the guidance of their father Bill, who studied for many years under the revered traditional Yup’ik kayak-maker Frank Andrew. In the iAC, the kayak frame will serve as a visually compelling example of Native craft and ingenuity that lives on today.

Duane Blue Spruce, public spaces planning coordinator for the museum in New York, spearheaded the effort to obtain the kayak, and was the main point of contact with Alaska during the months-long process. I had the pleasure of speaking both with Duane and with Bill Wilkinson, co-founder of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok (or Kwig, as the locals call it) about their perspectives on the experience.

Bill described to me the history of Qayanek, humbly crediting his knowledge and skill to his father-in-law, Frank Andrew, who was part of the last generation of Yup’ik people to be taught traditional kayak-building practices. Frank agreed to be Bill’s teacher, and Bill spent 19 years working with him and developing his knowledge. For the majority of the time it was just the two of them, but Frank spent his last six years teaching Bill, Noah Andrew Sr. (Frank’s son), Ethan Wilkinson and Troy Wilkinson to use traditional materials, such as driftwood and sealskin, to construct the kayaks. Bill said he “tried to learn how to build them how they would have built them 100 years ago or more.” They used their teeth to bend wood, caulked the joints with seal oil and moss, and colored the wood with traditional natural pigments. In Bill’s words, they were “always pushing the envelope.”

Kayak frame close-up
Made using historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales, the frame is lashed with sealskin and dyed with natural pigments.

In New York, Duane expressed his fascination with kayak hunting, pointing out that each item a Yup’ik hunter uses is essential. On display in the exhibition Infinity of Nations is a Yup’ik hunting hat, part of the hunter’s efficient and balanced system. Duane explained that the hat not only shields the hunter’s face from the sun, but its conical shape amplifies the subtle echoes of the sounds made by seals and fish under the surface of the water. Bill emphasized that the tools of a Yup’ik hunter kept him alive, and since his kayak was custom-made for his body, it became an extension of his being.

For 13 years, Bill was the only apprentice to Frank Andrew and his vast knowledge of kayak-making. Many family members helped to translate countless questions from Bill to the ever patient Yup’ik elder, and Bill shared much of what he learned with his sons Troy and Ethan. From the time the new Qayak Center was built in 2000 until he passed away in 2006, Frank, with Bill's urging, expanded his training to a deeply authentic level for all four of his students. Bill recalled watching Frank Andrew speak with his son in Yup’ik, joking that the “DSL connection" between the two led Noah to perfect his skill in about a quarter of the time it took him. “I think we’ve been successful in creating a small but new generation of traditional kayak builders. And they can choose to go to schools or build them or pass them on, or not. But I’m off the hook now.

“I don’t want to be the last guy,” Bill explained. “This knowledge should be back in some Native hands. And we’ve done that, so I consider that kind of successful.”

Noah Andrew
Frank Andrew’s son, Noah Andrew, poses with what Bill calls a “loon kayak.” The boat's skin is covered in seal oil and soot, traditional Yup’ik kayak-making materials. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

For Duane, from the first call to Kwigillingok in October 2015 to the arrival of the frame in February 2016, the experience was a complete adventure. The museum’s Mary Ahenakew and Gaetana DeGennaro happened upon the Qayanek website, and fate had it that Bill was willing to sell the frame. The four-hour time difference, mounds of paperwork, and 4,000 miles of distance pushed everything up to the wire, and a December 31 New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant deadline loomed at the horizon. Duane maintained weekly contact with Bill, sometimes even reaching him between classes he teaches at the local school in Kwig.

The request to buy from Bill was processed in Washington on December 23, eight days before the NYSCA grant deadline. People working on the project here in New York couldn’t help but be giddy. They regarded the last-minute victory as a “Christmas miracle,” a few even suggesting that none other than Santa Claus himself had agreed to ship the frame.

But what to do without Santa’s sleigh? “OK,” Duane remembered thinking to himself, “we’ve bought this thing. How are we gonna get it from Alaska to New York?” Bill’s experience finding a way to ship the enormous frame from tiny Kwig to New York was a true testament to the ambition and hard work of his family and the Kwigillingok community. The process he described echoed the sense of adventure that Duane felt on his end, yet was wrapped up in the difficulties of life in the Alaskan bush. Bill built an 18-foot, 700-pound custom shipping crate in the back aisle of their grocery store, which was the only indoor place it would fit. He and his son Ethan then had to disassemble it to get it out the door, reassemble it in a blizzard, and haul it a quarter of a mile through the same blizzard to the school. There, it was stored until the kayak was carefully secured and ready to begin its journey to the museum.

The final transport plan included movement on land, water, and sky. Bill stressed the danger associated with landing planes in the tiny Kwig airport, lightheartedly mentioning that “it’s very skinny, and it’s very short. . . . One pilot came out and landed on this airport, went back to Bethel, and said ‘I quit.’” The frame was flown from Kwigillingok to Bethel, and from Bethel to Anchorage. Then it was transferred to a steamship and rode the waves from Anchorage to Seattle, where it was picked up by a truck and driven to New York.

Kayak and plane
A plane prepares to take off with the kayak frame from the airport in tiny
Kwigillingok, Alaska. Making the frame's custom shipping crate is a story in itself. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

The frame arrived at the museum on Wednesday, February 3. Duane recounted that he had happened to call Bill to check in on the shipping status the day before and was astonished to hear that not only had the frame been shipped, it was set to be delivered the next day. With less than 24 hours to prepare for the arrival, the project team figured out all the logistics just in the nick of time. It was obvious that Bill took great care in packing the frame. He wrote detailed instructions on the wooden crate, complete with miniature drawings and little black circles that indicated which screws should be taken out first, as well as a playfully blunt warning: “Lid is very heavy! Do not drop lid into crate and crush contents.”

Bill's instructions
Bill Wilkinson’s instructions for unpacking the frame left nothing to chance.

The breathtaking craftsmanship and simple beauty of the piece were obvious as soon as it was unpackaged. Duane held a blessing ceremony to welcome the frame into the space, acknowledging the time and hard work that went into the project and making sure to snap a picture for Bill to assure him that the frame arrived safely and in one piece.

NY staff unpacking the frame
Unpacked! Beautiful and functional, the kayak frame represents Yup'ik knowledge and experience preserved for generations.  

I asked Duane about the importance of obtaining authentic Native objects for the exhibit. He replied that putting pieces like the kayak on display shows that “traditional methods and knowledge are still valid in the contemporary world.” Since the exhibition will focus on both the history and current use of Native innovations, it speaks to the integrity of the museum that so much time, effort, and stress were put into assuring that the kayak was not only culturally accurate, but produced in a Native environment, with traditional materials. Duane noted that, remarkably, commercial kayaks are still designed in an extremely similar way. “It still works!” he said. “The technology still works.”

The singular history of this kayak frame adds to a much larger conversation. Not only does the existence of the frame rely upon the ingenuity of the Native people who first designed it, it also hinges on the dedication of Frank Andrew, his family, and a new generation of builders who keep Frank's legacy alive and believe in the value of tradition and learning through experience. The story of this kayak adds to a broader narrative of cultural exchange and conservation, and the importance of institutions like the museum that work to preserve the memory of Native innovation, as well as support its modern reality. Ultimately, the kayak will serve as a jumping off point for young people who will leave the museum with a deeper and more personal understanding of the lasting impact of Native knowledge and design, and an interest in learning more.

As a middle school teacher, Bill has hands-on experience with the impact that Native history and knowledge have on today’s younger generations. Since the kayak frame will eventually be housed in the iAC here in New York, I asked Bill for his view on the importance of displaying Native objects in educational settings. “Here’s why I think it’s important to young people,” he said with obvious passion. “When they see the genius of kayak building, they realize that they are a part of a culture that is just as smart, just as brilliant, just as innovative, as any other society. Everybody needs to know their own self-worth, their own cultural self-worth. We all have a place in the existence of humanity, and we should all be considered with equal respect and dignity and knowledge. And I think that that’s a really important aspect of teaching people, Native and non-Native, about the brilliance of kayak-building.”

—Althea Meer

Althea Meer spent the summer working as an intern with the Office of Public Affairs at the museum in New York. This fall she begins her junior year at New York University, where she's studying English, Spanish, and web programming.

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November 22, 2017

Everyone's history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known

LandingofthePilgrims DoS

Michele Felice Corné (1752–1845), The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1803. Credit: U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Reception Rooms


“The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” —James W. Loewen, Plagues & Pilgrims: The Truth about the First Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving story you know and the one I know are most likely the same. It’s the story deeply rooted in America’s curriculum—the one that inspires arguably the most important and tradition-filled holiday in American culture. We’re taught that in 1620 the Pilgrims fled harsh religious suppression in Britain, sailed across the Atlantic, and in December stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock, in what is now Massachusetts. With little food and no shelter, the colonists struggled to survive a brutal winter until a friendly Indian, Squanto, came along and showed them how to cultivate crops. Their first harvest resulted in a feast, as the Pilgrims gave thanks to the kind Indians for helping to bring the colony back to life.

This version of Thanksgiving, while pleasant, isn’t terribly accurate. Told from a perspective that frames the Pilgrims as the main characters, the story leaves out major details, glorifying the Pilgrims’ endeavor and the holiday it birthed, forcing the Wampanoag Indians into forgotten roles. It also erases a monumentally sad history. When we pay homage to the Pilgrims and their bravery, and react to the tragic background of America's founding myth with silence, we essentially support a mindset that only some people’s history matters.

First Thanksgiving Brownscombe

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914. Collection of Pilgrim Hall Museum. Not all mythical history is verbal. The Plains Indian headdresses worn by Brownscombe's Wampanoag leaders are probably enough said about The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Top: The shirtless-in-December figure on shore in Corné's Landing of the Pilgrims notwithstanding, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote in his journal that it was four months before the Pilgrims saw the first Indians. Credit: Pilgrim Hall Museum
 

The true history of Thanksgiving begins with the Indians.

About four years before the Pilgrims anchored off Massachusetts, British fishermen had already started making their way through New England, storming through Indian towns to kidnap Native people for profit in the slavery trade. Although it’s often left out of textbooks, this series of intrusions was the catalyst to what is probably the most important event in this nation’s history, without which Europeans would not have been able to settle on top of the millions of Native people who already lived in America—at least, not as fast: epidemic illness.

Before 1492, the Western Hemisphere was largely isolated, sparing its indigenous peoples from diseases the rest of the world succumbed to time and time again. But this lack of contact prevented Natives of the Americas from developing any type of immunity to European, Asian, and African pathogens. When Europeans started trekking through Indian towns, they brought sickness with them. Indians died at an alarming rate, making it substantially easier for colonists to overpower entire villages—well, what was left of them. 

The Pilgrims already believed they were part of God’s plan. Finding empty villages as 90 percent—yes, 90 percent—of America’s Indians perished in front of them only furthered Europeans’ sense of their destiny, influencing them to continue the colonization westward. As Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) wrote in Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories, one of the opening exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, “That initial explosion of death is one of the greatest tragedies in human history because it was unintended, and unavoidable, and even inevitable. But what happened in its wake was not.” 

One people who famously suffered from the onslaught of disease were the Wampanoag, a nation made up of 69 villages scattered throughout present-day Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Skilled hunters, gatherers, farmers, and fishers during spring and summer, the Wampanoag moved inland to more protected shelter during the colder months of the year. Like indigenous groups everywhere, the Wampanoag had a reciprocal relationship with nature and believed that as long as they gave thanks to the bountiful world, it would give back to them. Long before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag held frequent Thanksgiving-like celebrations, giving thanks in the form of feasts and ceremonial games.

Exposed to new diseases, the Wampanoag lost entire villages. Only a fraction of their nation survived. By the time the Pilgrim ships landed in 1620, the remaining Wampanoag were struggling to fend off the Narragansett, a nearby Native people who were less affected by the plague and now drastically outnumbered them.  

For a moment of history, the interests of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag aligned. When the Pilgrims landed in New England, after failing to make their way to the milder mouth of the Hudson, they had little food and no knowledge of the new land. The Wampanoag suggested a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the Pilgrims would exchange European weaponry for Wampanoag for food. With the help of an English-speaking Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum (not Squanto; he spoke English because he was kidnapped and sold in the European slave trade before making his way back to America), the Pilgrims produced a bountiful supply of food that summer. For their part, the Wampanoag were able to defend themselves against the Narragansett. The feast of indigenous foods that took place in October 1621, after the harvest, was one of thanks, but it more notably symbolized the rare, peaceful coexistence of the two groups.

—Lindsay McVay

The events that followed the first Thanksgiving also depart from the peaceful ideal we celebrate. To read what happened next, see the earlier post Do American Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?

Lindsay McVay is a senior at the University of Central Florida, majoring in writing and rhetoric. Her professional experience includes writing grants for nonprofits; contributing to blogs, especially Book Baristas; and designing websites for Florida independent publishers. During the fall of 2017, Lindsay has worked as an intern in Marketing and Communications at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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November 10, 2017

A tradition of service: Master Sergeant and Lipan Apache War Chief Chuck Boers

In 2020, the National Museum of the American Indian will honor Native American servicemen and women by building the National Native American Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Here, Master Sergeant and Lipan Apache War Chief Chuck Boers (U.S. Army retired), a member of the memorial advisory committee, talks about his experiences as a Native American in the military and the traditions that inspired his service.

From 2015 until the summer of 2017, the advisory committee and the museum conducted 35 community consultations to seek input and support for the memorial. These events brought together tribal leaders, Native veterans, and community members from across the nation, and resulted in a shared vision and set of design principles for the National Native American Veterans Memorial. The design competition for the memorial is open until 3 p.m. Eastern time January 9. All information about the competition is available at https://nmai.si.edu/nnavm/memorial/.

MSG Chuck Boers 2007–08
Master Sergeant Chuck Boers (Lipan Apache/Cherokee) during his last deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2007–2008.


Thank you for your military service to the United States, and thank you for being a member of the Advisory Committee for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which will be built on the grounds of the museum. May I ask you to introduce yourself and to give us your Native name and its English translation?

My name is Johancharles Van Boers, and my nickname is Chuck. My Apache name is Nant’a ’e’e. It means Warrior Number 2.

Where are you from, and what is your tribal backgound?

I was born in Fresno, California, and was a military brat, so we traveled a little bit. But I primarily grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California. My family is Lipan Apache and Cherokee. I’m an enrolled tribal member of the Lipan Apache.

Is the warrior culture strong in your family and tribe?

Yes, warrior traditions are strong within the Lipan Apache and our families. I also know that the warrior spirit and traditions are still very strong throughout Indian Country. One can see those warrior traditions being upheld at tribal events and ceremonies, like powwows, Gourd dances, warrior societies, our willingness to serve in the U.S. military, and in many other ways.

Being a warrior isn’t all about fighting and going off to wars. It is sometimes about keeping the peace. Warriors are people whose internal driving force causes them to serve others selflessly without regard to their wellbeing, while maintaining their belief systems, values and traditions. Warriors also have the moral and physical courage to stand up to injustices, not just for themselves, but for others as well. Warriors display a strong sense of duty and commitment to their family, their community, and their nation. These are just a few of the many attributes of a warrior, and that culture is still very strong throughout Indian Country.

SFC Chuck Boers Shenandoah Powwow 2004
On mid-tour leave from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sergeant First Class Chuck Boers carries in the eagle staff at the Shenandoah Powwow, 2004.

Have other members of your family also served?

My family has served in every war and conflict that the United States has had since World War I. We even had family members who served as Army Scouts in the late 1800s and as Texas Rangers. Lipan Apache and Cherokee family members who have served in the Armed Forces include: as U.S. Army Apache Scouts, my great-great-great-grandfather Juan Guerrero and his brother, who served at Fort Griffin and Fort Clark; in World War I, my great-grandfather Charles Forest (sometimes spelled Forrest); in World War II, my great-uncle Dole Davis and great-uncle Clayton Walker; in the Korean War, my great-uncle Walker; in the Vietnam War and Vietnam and Cold War era, my mom, Virginia Yamato, uncle Darrell Davis Jr., uncle Jim Davis, uncle Charles Davis, uncle Roland Davis, and second cousin Donald Walker; during the Cold War and in Grenada, Panama, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Somalia, my mom (Virginia Yamato), uncle Darrell Davis, uncle Jim Davis, cousin Rick Davis, second cousin Donald Walker, third cousin Adel Walker, third cousin Penny Heartgraves, some other relatives who are fourth and fifth cousins and so on, and myself; in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, the war on terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq, my cousin Rick Davis, third cousin Adel Walker, third cousin Penny Heartgraves, some other relatives who are fourth and fifth cousins and so on, and myself; currently serving, my nephew Nate Williamson and some cousins who that are fifth, sixth, and so on.

I also had a lot of other family members who served, but they were not Native or Lipan Apache or Cherokee: my father, Johan Boers; uncle Nicholas Boers; stepfather Craig Yamato; step-great-uncle Yamato, who served during World War II in the 442nd Infantry, which was made up almost entirely of soldiers of Japanese descent; and step-mom, Judy Boers.

Why did you choose to serve in the armed forces? Did your Native background play any part in your decision to join?

I wanted to uphold our family and tribal tradition as a warrior, learn some technical and tactical skills, gain real-world life experience, and serve our nation. My Native culture played a huge part in my decision to join the military. Growing up I saw how the Native community treated veterans. At powwows during Grand Entry, the veterans would bring in the colors and afterwards do an honor dance. I was taught that we always welcome home our warriors with songs, dances, and other traditional warrior ceremonies. Then too, growing up around some of the warrior societies and along with our family’s long history of being warrior, I knew I wanted to be part of that warrior culture and to carry on our warrior traditions.

Why did you enter your specific branch of the military?

A majority of my family has served in the U.S. Army, so it only seemed natural to join the Army. In fact my mom was the recruiter who put my enlistment in.

What years did you serve, and where did you serve?

I joined the U.S Army in August 1982 and retired on 31 December 2009 with more than 26 years of service. I served all over the United States and overseas during my time in the Army. Here are the combat tours and humanitarian and peacekeeping missions I took part in Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada), the War on Drugs (drug interdiction operations within Central America), Humanitarian relief efforts during Hurricane Hugo, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Southern Watch (Kuwait and other locations in the Middle East), land mine extraction and training operations in Africa, Operation Southern Watch (Kuwait and other locations in the Middle East), Operation Restore Democracy (Haiti), Operation Joint Endeavor (NATO Implementation Force [IFOR], Sarajevo, Bosnia), Operation Restore Democracy (Haiti), Operation Joint Guard (SFOR, Tuzla, Bosnia), Operation Joint Guardian (KFOR, Kosovo), Operation Iraqi Freedom, Humanitarian relief efforts during hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

What was the highest rank you received?

Master Sergeant (MSG/E-8).

USAF TSgt Sam Stitt and SFC Chuck Boers
U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Sam Stitt (Choctaw) and Sergeant First Class Chuck Boers pose in front of their warrior chalk art, An Najaf, Iraq, 2004.

Were there other Natives who served with you, and would care to talk about them?

Throughout my military career I had the opportunity to serve with a lot of other Natives and develop lasting friendships. It didn’t matter what tribe we came from, there was always some type of connection through our Native traditions that we could relate to. Two good examples are Jason Gambardella (Chippewa) and Dixie Kapayou (Sac and Fox). We served together in the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), at Fort Meade, Maryland, and in Bosnia during Operation Joint Endeavor (IFOR and SFOR). Jason and I also attended Airborne training together and served on the D.C. Chapter Vietnam Era Veterans Inter-Tribal Association Honor–Color Guard, as well as on the Viper Team at Hohenfels, Germany.

Another example would be during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I met Sam Stitt (Choctaw) while on mission in An Najaf and Debra Mooney (Chickasaw) during the first ever powwow held in a combat zone. Debra organized the powwow, which was a two-day event. There was stickball, blow dart and tomahawk contests, dancing, singing, drumming, and of course a huge feed that included fry bread. These are just a few of the Native soldiers I had the honor to serve alongside. We developed lasting relationships.

Were you treated differently in the service because you are Native?

Being Native in the military during the period when I served had its challenges at times, although I’m not sure if that is the same as being treated differently. Over the years the military has done a lot of integration as far as the sexes, races, etc. However people still carry with them a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about Native people. Some of the challenges I faced during my time in the Army were because I didn’t fit that Hollywood version or stereotype of what an Apache should be, or act like, or look like. I was also surprised by some folks’ thinking that Native Americans didn’t exist anymore—as tribes, let alone as a people.

Another challenge was traveling with my family’s eagle feathers, medicine pouch, gourd rattle, and other items like corn pollen, sage, and sweet grass during deployments and going through customs. It seemed I was always being asked to provide my papers and tribal ID and to explain myself. At times folks thought I was doing some kind of pagan rituals, and they didn’t know what to make of that. However some folks would inquire about the traditions and then embrace them. A good example of that happened right before the Second Battle of Fallujah: I was smudging my Iron War Pony (HMMWV) and some of my soldiers asked if I would please smudge their Iron Warrior Ponies, too. Another example is that some folks thought that all Natives were great trackers or had some type of special intuition about when bad things might happen. They wanted to put us out front so that we could use those skills. Sometimes during pre-combat operations briefings someone would remind those of us going outside the wire that we were going out into “Indian Territory” and that we all needed to stay alert. I would always make some type of joke about it not being Indian Country, and people would receive the message and correct themselves.

Hawk feather attached to Boers HMMWV, Fallujah 2004
A hawk feather SFC Boers tied to his Iron War Pony (HMMWV). This photo was taken just before the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, 2004.

Is there a story or incident that sticks out most in your memory?

A lot of things from my time in the military stick out in my memory, some good and some not so good.  One of the most memorable would have to be the powwow in Iraq. I’ve mentioned that it was the first powwow known and documented to have taken place in a combat zone. I was amazed how many Natives came from all over Iraq and Kuwait to attend this historical event. That powwow will be shared with our people for many generations to come. So many tribes came to together despite being in a combat zone to celebrate their traditions and cultures.

Where were you when your service ended?

My last duty station was at Fort Irwin, California.  I was attached to the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) for about 18 months, where I was afforded the opportunity to heal emotionally, mentally, and physically from my combat injuries and to prepare myself for retirement.

Did your tribe or Native community do anything special for you upon your return home when your service ended?

When I retired from the Army, the WTU failed in recognizing my military service, and I carried a lot of anger from that. However my tribe and the local Native American Indian veteran community made things right by conducting a traditional Native warrior homecoming and cleansing ceremony for me, as well as a retirement ceremony at our annual New Years Eve Powwow. Following the retirement ceremony my family and I did a give-away to mark the start of a new chapter within my life.

Are you a member of any veterans groups?

Yes, I belong to several veterans groups. I try to stay active in all of them, but it can be very challenging at times. I’m a life member in the Lipan Apache Warrior and Gourd Society, the Lone Feather Warrior and Gourd Society, the National American Indian Veterans Association (NAIVA), the National Native American Veteran Association (NNAVA), the Southern California American Indian Veterans Association (SoCal AIVA), the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Military Order of the Cootie (MOC), the Washington D.C. Chapter of the Vietnam Era Veterans Inter-Tribal Association (VEVITA) Honor Color Guard, the Indian Nations Warriors and Veterans Honor Color Guard, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and the International Combat Camera Association. I’m also an Alumnus of the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP).

Would you recommend joining the service to your family members or others of your tribe?

Yes, I would recommend joining the military to family, fellow tribal members, and friends. The military provides a lot of opportunities for personal growth, to learn new skills, and to see the world while honing those skills and gaining real world experience. I would also point out that military life isn’t for everyone.

What do you think of the upcoming Native American Veteran’s Memorial?

I feel that Native American Veteran’s Memorial is a great way to honor our Native warriors both past and present, while at the same time preserving our warrior spirit, traditions, culture, and history for future generations. There are a lot of amazing and rich stories Native warriors have to share. Native people have served during every war from the Revolutionary War all the way up to present. Our accomplishments, war deeds, and history as warriors are part of a very complex and unique relationship with the United States, and those stories are not usually shared in mainstream education, media, books, and movies.

A great example of a story that will come to light as a result of the United States’ building this memorial is that of World War II Medal Honor recipient USMC Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the commander of the legendary Black Sheep Squadron, who was an enrolled member from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. Another great example would be Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez, who was Yaqui and Mexican.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I earned and received the title of Lipan Apache War Chief from our tribal chairman, tribal leaders, and tribal elders on 31 Dec 2007 while home on mid-tour leave from Iraq. Other tribes also have War Chiefs, but it had been more that 100 years since Magoosh, the last Lipan Apache War Chief, passed away. I was still on active duty and serving in Iraq when I earned and received that title. I didn’t retire from the military until 31 Dec 2009, so for two years I was the only living War Chief serving on active duty. The other War Chief living at the time was U.S. Army W.W. II veteran and Crow Nation War Chief Joseph “Joe” Medicine Crow.

You haven’t mentioned it, but I think readers should know that during your service you received two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, as well as many other merits and commendations. Thank you again for all you have done for the country, and thank you for helping create the National Native American Veterans Memorial.

Thank you.

—Dennis Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

All photos courtesy of Chuck Boers

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