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November 10, 2011

Honoring Native veterans, at the museum and with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma

Iraq powwow

Drum circle during the 120th Engineer Combat Battalion powwow at Al Taqaddum Air Base, Iraq, 2004. Photo by Master Sergeant Chuck Boers (Lipan Apache/Oklahoma Cherokee, b. 1964). Gift of Sergeant Debra K. Mooney and members of the 120th Engineer Combat Battalion. D00142

The next time you visit the museum on the Mall in Washington, stop and take a look at three new cases opposite the entrance to the Mitsitam Cafe. Honoring Indian Traditions in a Combat Zone is a small but important exhibit that tells the story of the powwow organized in 2004 by Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) and the 120th Engineer Combat Battalion in Iraq.

Held at the Al Taqaddum Air Base near Fallujah, the two-day event featured Native regalia, dancing and singing, and traditional games and foods, including genuine fry bread. Participants made their powwow drum from a discarded 55-gallon oil barrel and canvas from a cot. The goal of the powwow was to bring a piece of home to Native Americans serving in Iraq while sharing their cultural heritage with fellow soldiers, marines, and sailors.

American Indians have served in the U.S. military since the American revolution, and by percentage they serve more than an other ethnic group. If you can't be in Washington this weekend, a Native community closer to home is no doubt observing Veterans Day. If home is anywhere near Okmulgee, Oklahoma—coincidentally, headquarters of the the 120th Engineer Combat Battalion—you're particularly in luck: The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Museum and Cultural Center is hosting a special exhibition featuring Native American servicemen and servicewomen.

3radio_messangersNative Words, Native Warriorsproduced by NMAI and the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and on view at the Veterans Affairs Services building at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Complex—tells the remarkable stories of Native American soldiers who used their Native languages as battlefield codes during World Wars I and II. These soldiers came from many tribes: Assiniboine, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chippewa, Choctaw, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Dakota Sioux, Hopi, Kiowa, Lakota Sioux, Menominee, Meskwaki, Muscogee, Navajo, Oneida, Pawnee, and Seminole. Best known are the Navajo code talkers of World War II, whose history has been popularized in documentaries and feature films. But as early as October, 1918, during World War I, eight Choctaw soldiers serving in northern France used their language to save other Allied soldiers' lives.

The exhibition at Okmulgee is enriched by extensive displays of Muscogee veterans' mementoes, awards, uniforms, and documents, as well as historic photographs and accompanying texts that recognize the contributions of Muscogee members of the U.S. Armed Forces. An honor guard will be present at the exhibition opening on Veterans Day. The exhibition is on view through February 29, 2012. 

NMAI 26-5148Looking ahead, on December 2, Debra Mooney will be at NMAI in Washington to take part in a program about Native American soldiers' experiences during wartime. She will be joined by Chuck Boers (Lipan Apache/Cherokee), an Iraq War veteran (and participant with Sgt. Mooney in the Al Taqaddum Inter-Tribal Powwow), recipient of two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts; John Emhoolah (Kiowa), a Korean War veteran who joined the Oklahoma Thunderbird Division while he was still in high school; and Joseph Medicine Crow (Apsáalooke [Crow]), a World War II veteran who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Attorney Jason Giles (Muscogee [Creek]), a Vietnam War veteran, will moderate the discussion. Herman J. Viola, curator emertius at the Smithsonian, will chronicle the roles of Native soldiers from 1770 to the present.

If neither Washington nor Okmulgee is in your travel plans this year, the December presentation will be webcast live. In the meantime, have a wonderful, grateful Veterans Day.


Upper: Marine radio messengers on their way to Okinawa, Japan, 1945. Left to right: Private First Class Joe Hosteen Kelwood (Navajo), Steamboat Canyon, AZ; Pvt. Floyd Saupitty (Comanche), Lawton, OK; and Private First Class Alex Williams (Navajo), Leupp, AZ. Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Lower: Drum, stand, and drumsticks, 2004. Metal, canvas, wood, commercially tanned leather, plastic, nylon cord, adhesive tape, metal nails. Made by members of the U.S. Army's 120th Engineer Combat Battalion, headquartered in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and used during their Al Taqaddum Inter-Tribal Powwow, September 17–18, 2004, in Al Taqaddum, Iraq. Gift of Sergeant Debra K. Mooney and members of the 120th Engineer Combat Battalion.


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