November 10, 2017

Traditions 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.

The design competition for the National Native American Veterans Memorial begins November 11, 2017. Entries will be accepted through January  9, 2018. 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 are used courtesy of Chuck Boers.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

July 03, 2017

Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?

Every year or two, the museum updates this short essay, originally posted on July 3, 2013, with a few more people's descriptions of how they spend the 4th of July. How do you, your family, or your community observe the day? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.  

Pawnee Homecoming 07-03-2013
The Pawnee Indian Veterans Homecoming Pow Wow recognizes returning military servicemen and women. Pawnee, Oklahoma. The 71st annual Pawnee homecoming took place this year from June 29 to July 2. Photo courtesy of Pius Spottedhorsechief, vice president of the Pawnee Indian Veterans.

How do Indians observe the 4th of July? Do we celebrate? To answer, let’s turn back the pages of time. A reasonable chapter to begin in is July 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and 13 colonies became the United States of America. With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians. History tells us that as the American non-Indian population increased, the indigenous population greatly decreased, along with their homelands and cultural freedoms.

From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to loss of culture and land. Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, however, let’s jump to the early 1880s, when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life.

Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment and the withholding of treaty rations.

The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist. Some have since been revived or reintroduced by Indian tribes.

In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its ideals.

Nimi'ipuu 4 July 1906
Nimi'ipuu (Nez Perce) men and women on horseback dressed for the 4th of July celebration, 1906. Idaho. Photo by Major Lee Moorhouse. P07685

That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day warriors. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July as an occasion to honor their tribal veterans. During these celebrations, tribal flag songs and veterans’ songs are sung. More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Today tribes hold ceremonies and celebrations on or near Independence Day for different reasons. The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use this time as a homecoming for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies on the 4th of July because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year. Some American Indians do not celebrate the 4th of July because of the negative consequences to Indian people throughout history, while others simply get together with family and have cookouts, like many non-Native American citizens.

Jumping ahead to the present: To find out how individual American Indians across the country spend their 4th of July, we asked on Facebook. Here are some of the answers we received in the last few days: 

Norman, Oklahoma: Independence Day has a different meaning for us as Native people. We exercise our freedom carrying on the traditions of our people in whatever that form that may be. For me, it is in Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Kiowa country, at the Kiowa Tia-Piah (Gourd Clan) Society Celebration.

Tulsa, Oklahoma: I am headed to Quapaw Powwow, arguably the longest running annual powwow—145 years. Our family and tribal nation have always played host to friends and visitors from all over the world.

Laguna, New Mexico: As much turmoil the United States government has given our people in the past and present, my father has instilled in my family a sense of loyalty, liberty, and responsibility for our country. He is a Vietnam Veteran and could easily have forsaken this country due to the treatment he and other Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Instead, he chose to defend a country and the land of Indigenous Americans. He then raised his children and grandchildren to respect the country. So we will spend the day probably watching a parade in the morning and then have a BBQ with friends and family. We will honor and remember the veterans on this day.

Akwesasne Mohawk territory, Haudenosaunee territory: We don't celebrate the independence of our colonizer, especially considering that George Washington ordered the Sullivan–Clinton Campaign of burnings, displacement, and murder against the Haudenosaunee villages during their war for Independence. This while so many of our people were helping the Americans at Valley Forge, while decisive battles were won due to Iroquois allies.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: We have a powwow in Oneida every 4th of July, because we fought with George Washington and the colonists to help them win their independence.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: In Canada First Nations people are faced with that dilemma this year more so than ever, because the federal government is promoting their 150th anniversary and reconciliation at the same time.

Cpl Mitchell Redcloud Jr Day Powwow
Poster for the 4th of July powwow honoring Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Courtesy of the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Powwow Grounds.

Tomah, Wisconsin: The 4th of July—my Ho-Chunk Nation made the day known as Cpl. Mitchell Redcloud Jr. Day, with a powwow at the Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Pow-Wow Grounds. My choka (grandfather) was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, killed in action during the Korean War. Mitchell Jr., was my maternal choka's first cousin and was also a choka to me, Ho-Chunk relationship. I will volunteer on the 4th, if my relatives, the Redcloud family, need my assistance.

Arizona and the Diné (Navajo) Nation: Greet and end the day by thanking Creator for another blessed day. We don’t celebrate but use the day for family activities.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: I celebrate my two grandmothers who were born on the 4th of July. My mother’s mother, Lillie Carson (Otoe), and my dad’s grandmother, Sally Kaulaity (Kiowa). They were both good grandmothers. I miss them.

Santa Fe, New Mexico: We chose to get married on the 4th of July. Having our anniversary on that day makes the day about love and the continuity of my Cherokee family and the families of all the cultures we've married with over the generations. It adds nuance to a day that could just be about patriotism and blowing things up. Plus we always have the day off and get to spend the day with family and friends who believe in the importance of journeying together in peace and equality. And yes, we get fireworks, too.

Waldorf, Maryland: Yes. We have our homecoming then. It never feels like a 4th of July celebration even though it is. It feels more like what we call it, Lumbee Homecoming. We have thousands of people packed in one little town for nine days celebrating our people, our food and culture, their talent, or their coming back home to visit relatives, spending time together, and making new memories, and of course enjoying eating grape ice cream.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: The flag of the United States is not exclusively the flag of the immigrants who came here and created a government, it is also the flag that our own warriors defended many times in the last century and currently today. Yes, it was once flown by our enemy, but it now represents those warriors who fought under it and all those who work toward fulfillment of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and an inclusive country where immigrants and indigenous people live together equally protected under the Constitution. It is a symbol of the treaty agreements that we as indigenous people still have our inherent rights. Okay, that’s not a celebration but that’s what I think when I celebrate.

Oklahoma City: Do as our people always have: Help feed and care for those who need it!

These are the answers we highlighted in earlier years:

Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Answer: Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!

Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States of America, since we as a people existed long before there was ever a United States.

Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close-knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America's military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans, because this land is where our people emerged, and that any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It's a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that, especially those who allow blind bigotry and hate to cloud their judgment.

Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people "our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers." You notice they were already calling the frontiers "ours" when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran and/or an active member in the Armed Forces.

Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee, my mom is a Kiowa/Comanche, my uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.”  She would wear a black dress that day.

Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I'm not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .

Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren't a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn't need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country's Independence Day. But my heart knows I don't need a day to recognize my autonomy.

Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.

Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don't get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America's ideals of the past and where we hold them now.

Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: [It's a day] to celebrate all our Native men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, our Native men [the Codetalkers] without whose tribal language, [World War II] might have been lost. To honor our fallen ones, who sacrified their lives for us, and the veterans who are buried in our tribal cemeteries . . . and overseas. To honor my daughter . . . in the U.S. Army, a proud Native American woman who is serving our country. 

Waikoloa, Hawai'i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.


As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their yearly vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations— including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.

As for me, I’ll be with my two daughters, and we'll watch a huge fireworks display! 

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

How do you, your family, or your community observe the 4th of July? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

September 30, 2016

National Native American Veterans Memorial to Be Created in Washington, D.C.

Kiowa Ton-Kon-GahMembers of the Ton-Kon-Gah, or Kiowa Black Leggings Society, discuss what it means to be a veteran before the start of a ceremony in memory of those who fought. The tipi depicts battles in which Kiowas participated and lists the names of all Kiowas killed in combat since World War II. Near Anadarko, Oklahoma, 2014. Photo by Nicole Tung.

 

In December 2013 the U.S. Congress charged the National Museum of the American with creating a memorial on its grounds to give all Americans the opportunity “to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans” in our nation’s Armed Forces. “The significance of such a memorial on the National Mall is obvious,” declares museum director Kevin Gover, “and we welcome the opportunity to accord these veterans the honor they have earned. The project will give affirmation to the patriotic contributions of Native American veterans by the federal government as a whole and by the Smithsonian Institution in particular. For these reasons the National Museum of the American Indian will do as good a job on the National Native American Veterans Memorial as it deserves.”

Another key question, then, is why would American Indians serve a nation that suppressed their cultures and took away their own freedoms and homelands? The response by Jeffrey Begay, a Navajo veteran, reflects the sentiments of all Native veterans: “We serve this country because it’s our land. We have a sacred purpose to protect this place.”

For whatever reason, Native Americans not only serve, they do so at a higher rate in proportion to their population than any other ethnic group. They served in high numbers even before the United States passed the American Indian Citizenship Act in 1924: According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, during World War I 10,000 Native Americans served in the Army and 2,000 in the Navy; three out of four were volunteers. 

Choctaw squad upon return from WWI Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture 1919
Left: Choctaw telephone squad, returned from fighting in World War I. Camp Merritt, New Jersey, June 7, 1919. From left: Corporal Solomon B. Louis, Private Mitchell Bobb, Corporal Calvin Wilson, Corporal James Edwards, Private George Davenport, Captain E. H. Horner. Photo by Dr. Joseph K. Dixon. Courtesy Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Indiana University. 
Right: Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, 1919. Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture (Six Nations of the Grand River, 1890–1996) was the first Native Canadian registered nurse. Rejected from Canadian nursing schools because of her Native heritage, she sought training in the United States. In 1917, she volunteered for the U.S. Medical Corps and served in a hospital in France. She was one of 14 Native Canadian women who served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War I. Courtesy John Moses.

World War II witnessed an even more astonishing wave of American Indian patriotism. In fact, had all eligible non-Indian males in the United States enlisted in the same proportion as tribal people, there would have been no need for the Selective Service System. The Department of Defense later reported that, exclusive of officers, 24,521 reservation and 20,000 non-reservation Indians saw military service during the war. Native Hawaiians also responded in overwhelming numbers after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as did Alaska Natives, who were the first ashore on each island that Allied forces occupied during the Aleutian Campaign. All told, ten percent of the country’s American Indian and Alaska Native population of 350,000—including nearly 800 women—saw active duty during World War II. This represented one-third of all able-bodied Indian men from 18 to 50 years of age. In some tribes, the percentage of men in the military reached as high as 70 percent. For their service they earned at least 71 Air Medals, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, and 5 Medals of Honor. 


MacArthur with Signal Corpsmen

General Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in the South Pacific, on an inspection trip of American battlefronts, late 1943. From left: Staff Sergeant Virgil Brown (Pima), First Sergeant Virgil F. Howell (Pawnee), Staff Sergeant Alvin J. Vilcan (Chitimacha), General MacArthur, Sergeant Byron L. Tsingine (Diné [Navajo]), Sergeant Larry Dekin (Diné [Navajo]). U.S. Army Signal Corps.


This exemplary record of military service continues to this day. American Indians, both men and women, have served with honor, distinction, and in overwhelming numbers on each of our nation’s battlefields since World War II. Although the United States has given scant heed to their remarkable contribution to our nation’s safety and well-being, Native servicemen and women are among the most honored members of their communities across Indian Country. They are honored for their service by their families and their tribes. They are honored before going into service. They are honored upon their return. Honor songs are composed and sung in their memory. The most visible expression of that honor is at powwows, where veterans are asked to lead the Grand Entry, to carry the tribal and U.S. flags, and to dance.

Native American Women Warriors The Native American Women Warriors lead the grand entry during a powwow in Pueblo, Colorado, June 14, 2014. From left: Sergeant First Class Mitchelene BigMan (Apsáalooke [Crow]/Hidatsa), Sergeant Lisa Marshall (Cheyenne River Sioux), Specialist Krissy Quinones (Apsáalooke [Crow]), and Captain Calley Cloud (Apsáalooke [Crow]), with Tia Cyrus (Apsáalooke [Crow]) behind them. The organization, founded by Mitchelene BigMan in 2012, raises awareness about Native American women veterans and provides support services in health, employment, and education. Photo by Nicole Tung.


Although not all tribes approve of warfare, they all honor their soldiers. For some, especially the Pueblo peoples of the southwest, there is concern about being a soldier and the possibility of taking another human’s life. Nonetheless, as one Hopi leader explained, “The fact that American Indians are fighting for this great country of ours needs to be recognized. We may have been a conquered people, but we were not a defeated people, and our warriors will always rise to the call of battle.” One of those warriors was Private First Class Lori Ann Piestewa, who died in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A member of the Hopi Tribe from Tuba City, Arizona, Private Piestewa is believed to be the first Native American woman to die fighting in our nation’s armed forces.

Another unfortunate distinction for Native American warriors was the death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a Cherokee from Roland, Oklahoma. Sergeant Wheeler is the first known U.S. casualty in the fight against ISIS. A member of the Army’s elite Delta Force and the recipient of 11 Bronze Stars during his military career, he died October 22, 2015, while attempting to rescue prisoners near Hawija in Northern Iraq. Cherokee Principal Chief Bill John Baker eloquently stated, “Like so many of our Cherokee warriors, Joshua died serving our great country. We are forever indebted to him for his bravery and willingness to accept the most dangerous missions. Joshua is a true American hero, and we will always honor his life and sacrifices at the Cherokee Nation.”

Veterans at groundbreaking for NMAI

United States senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, at left in regalia, and Daniel K. Inouye stand with members of the Vietnam Era Veterans Inter-Tribal Association during the groundbreaking ceremonies for the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington, D.C., September 28, 1999. Campbell (Northern Cheyenne, b. 1933), a Korean War veteran, is one of the few American Indians to ever serve in Congress. For his actions during World War II, Inouye (1924–2012) received more than 15 medals and citations, most notably the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. MARIO TAMA / AFP / Getty Images.


Working together with the National Congress of American Indians and other American Indian groups, the National Museum of the American Indian has begun preliminary plans to construct the National Native American Veterans Memorial in the next five years and has formed an Advisory Committee chaired by Chickasaw Nation Lieutenant Governor Jefferson Keel and former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of the Northern Cheyenne, who affirms: “I am American and I am Indian and I am a vet. I believe I was compelled to serve to honor the warrior tradition which is inherent to most Native American societies—the pillars of strength, honor, pride, devotion, and wisdom.”

In the months ahead, this blog will feature stories from our Native veterans about their service and provide updates on the progress of the memorial project, including the status of the funding goal of $15 million.

—Herman J. Viola
Senior advisor, National Native American Veterans Memorial


Dr. Herman J. Viola is a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A specialist on the history of the American West, he served as director of the Museum's National Anthropological Archives in addition to organizing the major exhibitions Magnificent Voyagers and Seeds of Change. His many books include 
Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism. Before joining the staff of the Smithsonian, Dr. Viola was an archivist at the National Archives of the United States.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment