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Tones of Home Still Ring Loud for Native American Mechanic

By Pfc. Abel Trevino, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

BALAD, Iraq, Nov. 23, 2004 – Army Spc. Bert W. James looks like every soldier here: dust-covered tan desert camouflage uniform, sharp eyes and a calm demeanor. Beneath the surface, there's something that stands out, something distinctive. James is Native American -- full-blooded Navajo -- and carries his culture with pride.

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Army Spc. Bert W. James, a mechanic with 29th Signal Battalion, is full-blooded Navajo from Kayenta, Ariz. James grew up on a reservation and joined the military, following in the footsteps of his family. Photo by Pfc. Abel Trevino, USA

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A mechanic with the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 29th Signal Battalion, James spoke softly about his childhood and growing up on a reservation in Arizona. During an interview, he joked about his hair -- he has a natural blond widow's peak -- and spoke about his family and about war.

"[Back home] the elderly still believe in the old ways," James said. When James talks about the old ways of home in Kayenta, Ariz., -- in the middle of a reservation -- he refers to the traditional Navajo lifestyle. He said some elders still live without running water and electricity in mud huts.

For the people James grew up with, life had changed and pop culture had infused itself enough to allow him to grow up not much differently from American children in every suburb across the country. "I could go out and scrape my knees and get in trouble like every other red-blooded American kid. I could always turn to reading," James said. "I did pretty much what every child did."

James said he basically grew up at his grandmother's house, and she was the one who taught him his Navajo culture. "My grandmother was a huge influence," James said. "She was a firm believer in education. And through her I learned the (Navajo) language (and) a lot of the teachings. She shared them with me."

James still retains his childhood knowledge and is fluent in Navajo.

James said his grandfathers and an uncle influenced his decision to join the Army. For James, his heritage and military service go hand in hand. Since World War I, one family member has always volunteered to go and "fight for our country," he said. "Some of the things that influenced me to be in the military were two of my grandfathers. [They] were code talkers in World War II."

Another of James' grandfathers was a prisoner of war in Korea.

James joked that he joined the Army instead of the Marines because the recruiting station was closer, but was serious about the influence his uncle had on his decision when selecting an occupation. "My uncle told me when I was joining the Army that when I go, I had better learn something useful. I went back to the recruiter and told him I wanted to be a mechanic," James said.

James' uncle influenced him on picking a military specialty, but James joined for his own private reasons. "[I joined] mostly for my own experience," he said, "really, to change environments a little bit."

Despite the change of environment, James carries his heritage with him. "When I joined the Army, my dad gave me this (a small leather pouch filled with ground white corn). When I went home on leave, my dad gave me (a smaller leather pouch). It has a stone bear inside, with ground white corn," he said. "I wouldn't exactly call them good-luck charms; they're more like [for] protection."

Family is an important part of his heritage. It is the bond that keeps them together, James said. He is single and without children, but plans on passing along his heritage to his children. "A lot of times, it's good to carry on the teachings and educate others," he said. "It's really a way of life."

James has strong convictions about his culture and heritage, but doesn't consider himself a role model. "I'm only a positive influence for people back home," he said.

James said he tries to influence the children of his hometown positively. When he was younger, there was a positive influence imprinted on him by a U.S. government teacher who taught him the Navajo word "hojo" (pronounced ho-JO).

"It means balance, spirit and harmony. I used to always think about that, one word being so old but having so much meaning," James said. "You can't take a person for granted; you can't take Mother Nature for granted. That one word summarizes so much."

(Army Pfc. Abel Trevino is assigned to the 28th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAlthough Army Spc. Bert W. James grew up on a Native American reservation, he said he grew up no differently than any other American child. Photo by Pfc. Abel Trevino, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Spc. Bert W. James, a 29th Signal Battalion mechanic, works on a Humvee. James is full-blooded Navajo, raised on a reservation in Kayenta, Ariz. Photo by Pfc. Abel Trevino, USA  
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