Marine Creates Native American Powwow to Honor Veterans
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
UPPER MARLBORO, Md., Nov. 19, 1998 "I come to a powwow to be an Indian, to get a sense of myself. This is part of Indian spirituality, to help each other and to celebrate with each other. When I come to pow wows, I gain strength to carry on with my life." Rachel Snow, Assiniboin Tribe
Representatives of nearly 100 tribes from more than 30 states and Canada gathered here Nov. 7-8 to pay tribute to military veterans during the second annual National Native American Veterans Powwow.
"We hold the powwow to pay tribute to Native Americans who put their lives at risk to ensure the survival of future generations," said Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Arnold, co-founder of the year-old Native American Veteran's Pow Wow Committee, sponsor of the event.
Arnold, a Navajo Indian, said that upon arriving at Quantico Marine Base, Va., in September 1996, he found little information about Native American activities in the national capital region. That prompted him and his wife, Shana, along with Sam Windy Boy, a native of the Chippewa and Creek Rocky Boys Indian Reservation in Montana, to establish the Native American Veteran's Powwow Committee to honor active duty Native Americans and veterans.
"There are a lot of powwows that claim to honor veterans, but their appearance is kept to a minimum," Arnold said. "We wanted to honor veterans during November to coincide with DoD's American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month and Veterans Day activities on the mall in Washington."
Arnold also pointed out the significance of the powwow heritage and the connection between those ceremonies and traditional Veterans Day observances.
"A long time ago," Arnold explained, 'powwows were spiritual gatherings to cerebrate certain community events or to honor somebody who had come back from war. Tribes would hold a dance and people would sing songs that reflected deeds done in a battle or songs carried down from their ancestors when they were fighting, such as in the American Indian wars."
"People came here at their own expense because they want to honor their veterans, just as Indians have honored their warriors throughout history," said Arnold, noncommissioned officer in charge of operations at the Officers Basic Course, Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Va.
Representatives from the military services, the House and Senate and several veterans' organizations participated in the powwow. Representing the Department of Defense, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rod Hill told the gathering that DoD' observance of Native American Heritage Month reaffirms the country and armed forces' "commitment to acknowledging Native American contributions and honoring the unique heritage of this continent's first inhabitants."
"There's no question that many of you here today, as well as your forefathers, helped build today's unparalleled military force," said Hill, commander of the Navy element at the Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Md. "You have served with honor and distinction in every major conflict throughout our history."
The services have recognized Native American heroism in the past. According to Hill, the War Department awarded two Medals of Honor, 51 Silver Stars, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 47 Bronze Stars and 71 Air Medals to Native Americans during World War II.
Hill also said that the heritage month observance provides the military the opportunity to remind service members about such heroes as Billy Walkabout -- the most decorated American Indian soldier of the Vietnam War -- who earned the Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars.
Historically, Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups. Today, there are nearly 190,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives military veterans, according to DoD statistics.
Citing that statistic, Hill noted that Native Americans today represent 1 percent of the Navy's total strength, which equals about 4,700 men and women serving on active duty and in the Reserves.
Speaking on the second day of the powwow and providing an additional historical perspective, Marine Corps Col. John D. LeHockey said, "During the American Revolution, the Oneida and Tuscaroa nations, and members of the Six Nations Confederacy, sided with the colonists. During the Civil War, Indians fought on both sides, and, in 1898, they joined Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the charge on San Juan Hill. In World War I, 12,000 Indian men and women served, and that number more than doubled in World War II to more than 44,000."
More than 10 percent of the Native American population, or one-third of all able-bodied Indian men from 18 to 50 years of age saw service during World War II, said LeHockey, commander of the Officer Candidates School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
"In some tribes, the percentage of men in the military reached nearly 70 per cent," he said. "Several hundred Indian women also served with the Women's Army Corps, the Navy's Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and Army Nurse Corps. Indian participation in World War II was so extensive that it later became part of American folklore and popular culture."
It also became part of Marine Corps legend, particularly the Navajo code talkers, LeHockey said. For Marines, he said, the battle for Iwo Jima was the "code talkers" finest performance. The entire invasion was directed by orders communicated in the Navajo code. During the first 48 hours, while American forces were landing and consolidating their shore positions, six code-talker networks operated around the clock, sending and receiving more than 800 critical messages without error.
"The communications officer for the Fifth Marine Division said, 'without the Navajos, the Marines never would have taken Iwo Jima,'" LeHockey said. "He could have just as easily said, 'without Native American Indians, World War II might not have been won . . . ,' because not incidentally, one of those flag raisers at Iwo was a Pima Indian named Ira Hamilton Hayes."
It took more than 30 years for the Navajo code talkers to be recognized for their contributions to victory during World War II. It also took more than 30 years for Native Americans to be honored with a national memorial, LeHockey noted.
On Nov. 1, 1986, "the first national memorial honoring Native American veterans was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery near the grave of Ira Hayes," the colonel noted. "At the base of the memorial, a cottonwood tree was planted as a living memorial to those who served. A bronze plaque reads, "Dedicated to our Indian warriors and their brothers who have served us so well . . . the Vietnam Era Veterans . . . we are honored to remember you . . . ."
Arnold also noted that powwows are social gatherings were Native Americans come together to renew old friendships and begin new ones. "It's a time for people to move backwards and forward in time as old ways are melded with new ways," he said. "It's a time for people to build upon their rich heritage."