Face of Defense: Native American Vets Celebrate Heritage


As the smell of white sage wafted through the air and the sun slowly climbed the sky, the spiritual adviser blessed the circle and the drummers took their place at the two-day Native American Veterans Association’s annual Veterans Appreciation and Heritage Day Pow Wow here.

The local community enjoyed fried bread, arts and crafts, face painting, intertribal dancing, and Native American music during the Nov. 8-9 event. Attendees also viewed an Indian village with an authentic Arapaho teepee. The pow wow also gave Native American veterans and their family members a chance to honor their heritage and meet with veteran service representatives.

Beth Henderson, who works for NAVA, attends the annual pow wow to honor her two uncles who served in World War II and her mother who served during the Korean conflict. She is a member of the Wabanki-Micmac tribe. She encourages veterans to utilize veteran organizations like the Vet Center, or to reach out to their fellow veterans or neighbors for help.

“This event is important because veterans need to be recognized and shown appreciation,” she said. “They also need to know the benefits they can get out there, where they can go, what they can do to get help, or to get through whatever it is they’re going through at the time.”

Pow-wows Provide Sense of Self-identity

World War II Navy veteran Paul Duronslet, from the Cherokee tribe, has attended the NAVA pow wow since it began 13 years ago. When he was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1920s, he said, people were prejudiced against Native Americans. He said his father raised him under the assumption that he was French and later confessed to him that he was Cherokee.

“Nobody wanted to be Indian when I was a kid,” he said. “When I was older, I ran into a man who asked me what type of Indian I was. I told him I was French. He said, ‘No, you’re not. I lived in Oklahoma with Indians. I know an Indian when I see one.’ When I went home, my dad was in a good mood, so I asked him, and he admitted I was Indian.”

Duronslet said the annual pow wows provide him with a sense of self-identity that was previously missing.

“I’m whole now; I have a background now,” he said. “I go to these pow wows and reservations and see things that are going on today that’s no different than way back in the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s hard to believe.”

Tony LittleHawk, an Army Vietnam veteran and a member of the Cherokee tribe, said he didn’t run across many fellow Native Americans during his time in the military.

“We were very few [Native Americans in the military], even in basic, there was only one other Native beside myself,” LittleHawk said with a chuckle. “We became friends right away. There were very few Natives in medical school and jump school but what was funny is when I was in Vietnam, I ran into my next-door neighbor, who was Sioux. I used to go out with his sister. We ran into each other when I was out on patrol, and we ended up in a foxhole together in Vietnam.”

Thanks for Vietnam Veterans’ Service

The highlight for many of the veterans at the pow wow was the Veteran’s Roll Call. The Vietnam veterans said they’d received no accolades when they had returned from war. During the roll call, each service member announced name, service branch and his or her respective war or conflict. Non-Native Americans entered the circle as well, along with family members who spoke on behalf of their veterans.

“It doesn’t matter how long it takes. We want to make sure every veteran, Native or not, is heard, and we want to make sure that they are personally welcomed back home or given the respect and told, ‘Thank you for your service to our country’ and ‘Thank you for serving,’” said Army Vietnam veteran and Tigua tribe member Ted Tenorio, the president of the National American Veterans Association.

Angelina Alvarez, from the Pascua tribe, drove from Tucson, Arizona, with her 2-year-old son Pedro to honor her father, a Navy Vietnam veteran who was on SEAL Team 2. He had earned a Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. He passed away in 2009.

“It’s very humbling and touching to be here, but we dance for my dad,” Alvarez said, choking back emotion. “It’s all for my dad and it’s all for the veterans. It’s very important for us. Our family is very military. It’s in honor of them.”

For Greg Simon, an Army veteran from the Osage and Cherokee tribe, the Veteran’s Roll Call is a chance for finally getting the recognition he missed when he came home from Vietnam.

“I remember getting spit at when I came home -- this is why I had anger. You’re a warrior, and that’s the highest honor you can have as a Native American but it was frustrating when I came home,” Simon said. He was adopted by the Blood Reserve, Blackfoot, and was the head man dancer during the Pow-wow. He said an Arapaho elder and medicine man brought him back to his culture and helped him heal. Then he started coming to the pow wows.

“These pow wows are extremely therapeutic,” Simon said. “Just being in the circle and being recognized in a positive way, that’s all there is. To a veteran, just to be acknowledged, what else is there? That’s all you want. I don’t need any more. I don’t need gifts. I don’t need anything else.”

Sharing Stories

“I like hearing everybody’s stories,” said Crow tribe member Linda Old Horn-Purdy, a retired navy chief petty officer and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran. She grew up on the Crow Agency Reservation in Montana.

“It makes me appreciate that somebody has something where we couldn’t,” Old Horn-Purdy said. “They have some experience that we don’t have. Sometimes finding out what they’ve been through makes you appreciate what we have, even our arms, our legs, our health or our mind. We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Air Force Vietnam veteran, retired Army veteran, and Muskogee tribe member William Givens, NAVA’s founder and CEO, agreed that other veteran’s stories were compelling.

“I act like a macho man, and nothing makes me cry but when they tell their stories, sometimes, I tell you, I get a lump in my throat,” he said.

“I read about some veterans who save other’s lives, and it brings tears to my eyes,” Givens said.

Warrior Culture

The veterans said Native American heritage is a way of life for them.

“We teach our kids to grow up to be warriors,” said Apache tribe member Antonio Quezada, a Marine Corps Vietnam-era veteran. “We don’t write stories but we have storytellers. I’m one of them, and I pass that on to my nephew’s nephews.” Quezada has family members who’ve served in the Marines, Army or Air Force.

Native American veterans’ heritage is “something we’ve always had,” Simon said. “It’s so important to us; it gives us balance in life. It is something we need. We’re living in two worlds. This is our world, this is where we started. To be able to come back to it and feel good about it is the most important thing, and to be able to get out there and dance with the other veterans and shake hands and just tell each other welcome home -- that’s something we never got.”

Military Service Part of Native American Heritage

The veterans also said serving in the military is part of their heritage.

“Indians have defended America since the beginning, and it’s in our blood,” Old Horn-Purdy said.

“Their ancestors were warriors in the past, and they wanted to keep the tradition going,” Givens said. “You will find more Native people in the service from a minority of origin than any other minority.”

“If you go to any Native American home on the reservation, you would see on top of their TVs or on top of their mantels, photos of their grandfather all the way to their grandchildren and nephews who are in the military, because they’re following a tradition,” Tenorio said.

As November draws to a close on National Native American Heritage Month, Old Horn-Purdy encourages people to attend any of the pow wows held in their communities or to read up on Native American heritage.

“It’s good for people to learn and see what we’re about,” she said.