Posted by on Nov 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

Honoring Native Veterans: Modern Day Warriors

By : Dr. Erich Longie

When I was just 21 years old, my friend, Dan Cavanaugh, told me he was signing up for the Marine Corps. “I am going to Fargo for a physical,” he told me, “Why don’t you ride along?” I had recently been fired from the Sioux Manufacturing Company (SMC) and had nothing else to do, so I went along. All the way down to Fargo, Dan and the Marine Corps recruiter kept asking me to “at least take the physical.” I laughed at them and said, “Even if I did take a physical, I would probably sign up for the navy anyway.” Anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up taking a physical and somehow ended up in the Marine Corps.

I am now proud to say that I am a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, and I view my graduation from Marine Corp boot camp 39 years ago, back in 1974, as one of my greatest accomplishments.

When I grew up, almost every house I went into had a picture of a family member in an armed forces uniform. I know my dad and at least two of his brothers, my uncles, were in the service. I had several older cousins who were in the service, one who was killed in Vietnam. His name was Roger Alberts. My aunt’s husband was in the Marine Corps; and, in my generation, several cousins were in the service, so was my brother, who was in the army; and, I was in the Marine Corps. My family is typical of many Indian families. I know there are a lot of families out there who have just as many family members, if not more members, in the service as we do.

We Indians, veterans today, descend from a long line of warriors. Our ancestors were the bravest, greatest warriors of all time. When it came to going out to battle the enemy, they didn’t know what fear was.

A report to the President by an Indian Peace Commission, written in 1888, had this to say about our ancestor’s courage: “When the Indian goes to war he enters upon its dreadful work with earnestness and determination. He goes on an errand of vengeance, and no amount of blood will satisfy him. To force he yields nothing. In battle he never surrenders, nor does he accept capitulation at the hands of others. In war he does not ask for or accept mercy.”

American military leaders soon recognized our ancestors’ courage, determination, and fighting spirit and for over 200 years have welcomed us into their armies. Today, it is well documented that, historically, we Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita in the United States when compared to other ethnic groups.

Not only were our ancestors brave warriors when they fought against other tribes, but once they joined the white man’s armies, they fought bravely in his wars as well. They served with distinction and courage in the Revolutionary War, in the War of 1812, and they fought on both sides during the Civil War.

Due to their heritage, they were often given the dangerous job of scouting the enemy. Indian Scouts were active in the American West in the late 1800s and early 1900s, accompanying General John J. Pershing’s expedition to Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916. Native Americans from Indian Territory were also recruited by Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and saw action in Cuba in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

It is estimated that more than 12,000 American Indians served in the United States military in World War I. American Indian soldiers were widely recognized for their contributions in battle for France. Four Native Americans were awarded the Croix de Guerre, while others received the Church War Cross for gallantry.

At the outbreak of World War II, record numbers of Native Americans enlisted in the armed forces of this country in defense of their homeland. More than 44,000 American Indians, out of a total Native American population of less than 350,000, served with distinction between 1941 and 1945 in both European and Pacific theaters of war. This is a whopping 13% – 15% of the total population! The war also started a huge migration of over 40,000 Native American men and women into the cities to work in ordnance depots, factories, and other war industries. According to a documentary on PSA, Native American soliders were the first to cross the Rhine River into Germany. These battle hardened soldiers along with newly recruited Native Americans fought in the Korean conflict. The Native American’s strong sense of patriotism and courage emerged once again during the Vietnam era. More than 42,000 Native Americans fought in Vietnam, more than 90 percent of them volunteers. Think about it; at a time when many Americans were resisting the draft, 90% of the Native American population in the armed forces volunteered to fight in Vietnam. Native American soldiers saw military combat duty in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, and the Persian Gulf.

As the 21st century begins, there are nearly 200,000 Native American military veterans. “Estimates from the Veterans Administration and the Census Bureau suggest that in the 1990s there were 160,000 living Indian veterans. This represented nearly 10 percent of all living Indians–a proportion triple that of the non‐Indian population–and confirms once again that Native Americans play an important role in the U.S. military” (http://www.answers.com/topic/native-americans-in-the-military).

Why is there such a huge disproportionate representation in the military by Native Americans? The reasons behind this disproportionate contribution are deeply rooted in our proud warrior tradition. Most Native American warrior societies have these values: courage, strength, honor, pride, devotion, and wisdom. These qualities make a perfect fit with military tradition, and once in the military, Indians have always shown a willingness to engage the enemy in battle.

Bret Lundstrom’s Funeral. He was killed in Iraq.

I also want to mention that we Native Americans, more than any other people, honor those who have served in the armed forces. I remember a story an older tribal member from Fort Berthold told me when he came home after serving in Vietnam. He said that there were close to 200 family members, relatives, and tribal members waiting to greet him when he stepped off the plane. His friend and fellow soldier, who was a non-Indian, was amazed at his reception. Years later, I think it was right after the first Gulf War, there was a powwow held at United Tribes and all the Native American families across the nation who had lost a son or a daughter were invited. I still remember the sorrow I felt for the families as I stood in line to shake their hand. But, I also remember the pride I felt in being a Native American by simply observing how every one at the powwow showed their support for these families and stood in line and shook their hands.

I remember when I came home on leave, I was invited to a powwow. An older cousin went up to the announcer and told him I was home on leave. The announcer immediately had a drum group sing an honor song for me. Flanked by two older veterans, I slowly walked around the gym while people came out and shook my hand and gave me money. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

In closing, as long as there is a battle to be fought, a war to be won, you can bet Native Americans will be there, right there, in the front lines. I am proud to be a Marine Corps veteran, and I am also proud of all the Spirit Lake veterans.