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Face of Defense: Native American Vietnam Vet Takes Spiritual Path

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Cherokee tribe member Tony LittleHawk waved a bald-eagle-feather fan as he performed the sun dance at the Native American Veterans Association’s annual Veterans Appreciation and Heritage Day Pow Wow here Nov. 8-9.

The dance is a distinctive ceremony where Native Americans use intense dancing, fasting, piercing, sun-gazing and other spiritual devices to pray on behalf of their people for healing, according to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

LittleHawk, who is also a Native American spiritual adviser, went from being a Los Angeles gang member, an Army airborne combat medic and infantryman in Vietnam and motorcycle gang member to getting a calling to run sweat lodges and be a sun dancer. He also started performing counseling services for his Native American community.

Early Years

LittleHawk was born in Marshall, Texas, but he grew up in North Hollywood, California, with his mother and grandmother in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

“My grandmother always told me about my culture though,” he said of his Cherokee tribe. “My great grandmother was on the Trail of Tears in 1835.”

He joined a gang when he got older but got into trouble for fighting and joy-riding in the 1950s, so his probation officer encouraged him to join the military. He joined the Army for eight months and then re-enlisted.

LittleHawk said he was one of two Native Americans in his basic training unit.

“We were very few, even in basic. There was only one other Native beside myself,” he said, laughing. “We became friends right away. Even after basic, when I went to medical training and then jump school, there were very few Natives, few and far between.

“When I was in Vietnam, I ran into my next-door neighbor, who was Sioux,” he continued. “I used to go out with his sister. We ran into each other while I was out on patrol, and we were sitting in a foxhole together in Vietnam.”

After basic training, LittleHawk was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and deployed to the Dominican Republic for three months.

Military Service in Vietnam

He said he picked up valuable skills, patching up civilians in the Dominican Republic by holding sick-call hours in an abandoned home. Afterward, LittleHawk volunteered twice to go to Vietnam, and since he was a jungle expert and pathfinder, his name was first on the list. He was assigned to the 173d Airborne Brigade and signed up for the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol.

“I loved the jungle, crawling around out there, being all secretive, trying not to get caught,” he said. “I was very patriotic, gung-ho. I was like, ‘Let’s go out and end this war the best way we can.’ I started volunteering for every mission.”

LittleHawk said he employed his first-aid kit to assist American troops and Vietnamese civilians.

“I’ve delivered babies, picked out shrapnel metal, you name it, whatever it was to be done,” he said. “If we were out on an operation, it was about finding the enemy and killing them or escaping them. But if we went through a village and there were civilians, I would treat them. I never lost that compassion to help people. It was a strange situation.”

LittleHawk said his fellow soldiers never treated him differently for being Native American.

“I got a lot of respect because I was very devoted to my job, and I would always tell them if you get hit, make sure you’re hit, because if they can see you when I go out there, they can see me,” he said, leaning forward. “My guys knew I was going to take care of them, and they took care of me. When we would pass through a town, it was like, ‘Doc, your money’s no good here.’

“They took care of me because they knew I had their backs when we were out there,” LittleHawk continued. “I didn’t care if I was under fire or what. I was going because I wasn’t going to leave my guys out there suffering.”

Difficult Experiences

He said his most difficult experiences in Vietnam occurred when he’d “look into somebody’s eyes when they got hit, and they’re going, ‘Doc, help me’ and you’re looking at them, and I’m going, ‘I got you’ but I already know they’re going to die from their wound and you could just see it in their eyes.

“But you have to go, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you,’ and then in a few minutes, they’re dead,” he continued. “It was hard not to be able to do something for them.”

LittleHawk said while he was there, he never thought he was going to die until shortly before he was to leave Vietnam.

“Even though I worked on a lot of guys who died and patched guys up, sucking chest wounds, slapping them with morphine, whatever I had to do, the thought never entered my mind that I was going to die,” he said. “I’m going to get out of here. When I got short, I had less than 30 days to go in-country over there. They wanted to send me out on a mission. I finally told them, ‘No, I’m not going.’ Something made me feel like I wasn’t going to make it this time.”

Return to Civilian Life

LittleHawk said because he had volunteered for so many missions, he didn’t get any reprisals and was able to return home.

He got out of the Army as a buck sergeant with a few broken bones, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and caught a ride home to California with a Marine.

Decades later, in 2000, after encouragement from fellow Native American veterans, LittleHawk started receiving treatment and disability for his post-traumatic stress from his time in Vietnam.

Motorcycle Club Member

After his military service concluded, LittleHawk said, he didn’t want to put on a suit and sit behind a desk every day. He said he wanted an experience that provided a shot of adrenalin like during his military days, so he decided to join a motorcycle club. He ended up riding with the club for 16 years and was an officer for 12 of them.

“Almost all of the guys in my chapter were ex-military. They were all reconnaissance, Navy SEALs, Airborne or whatever,” LittleHawk said. “I was right at home. I retired out of the club, though, because I didn’t see my life going anywhere. It was all about partying, riding and whatever.”

Immersed in Native American Culture

LittleHawk went back to college to learn technical illustration and substance abuse counseling. Then, a friend took him to a pow wow. He said when he first heard the beat of the drums, he was hooked and has been going to pow-wows ever since.

“I would’ve never thought 30 years ago that I would be doing what I do right now,” LittleHawk said. “It was like it was all about me for the first 40 years of my life and then the Creator said, ‘You’ve done your thing; now it’s my turn.’ I sold my motorcycle, retired out of the club, everything. In a year of my life everything changed -- 180-degrees. I have no regrets.”

LittleHawk said his Uncle Matt in Montana adopted him into the Gros Ventre Nation on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and he started going to the Pipe ceremony. On his fourth year, he made a new pipe and while he was in the sun dance arena, he offered the pipe up and committed to 16 years.

“When I sun dance, I suffer for the people, so they don’t,” LittleHawk said. “Somebody always needs help. Creator helps them -- I’m just the instrument.”

LittleHawk will be 72 years old in January but said he won’t be finished with sun dancing for three more years. He gets pierced several times a year on behalf of his people.

“I’m the oldest sun dancer around here right now,” he said with a barking laugh. “Even my aunt and uncle said, ‘We’re thinking about 86’ing you because you’re getting too old for this. Why don’t you let the youngsters do it?’ I have a commitment for 16 years. If I can give the motorcycle club 16 years of my life, I can make a 16-year commitment to sun dance. I’m going to keep giving back to the community.”

Helping Fellow Veterans

LittleHawk has also worked with United American Indian Involvement as a counselor and is the Native American Veterans Association spiritual adviser. He also became ordained online so he could sign marriage contracts after performing traditional Native American weddings.

“I’ve been doing marriages now for over 10 years,” he said. “When they want somebody to do a traditional wedding, they call me. A lot of people call me for funerals too. When a church is involved, I go talk to the priest or minister or whoever, and I let him do the inside part, and I do the gravesite part. I do the traditional part, singing Native songs and giving Native blessings.”

Even though he said he’s retired, LittleHawk continues to perform ceremonies, conduct sweat lodges, and provide counseling to whoever needs it. He said everyone calls him “uncle” out of respect but he won’t let them call him “spiritual leader” until he hits his 80’s and has white hair.

LittleHawk said he’ll continue to visit hospitals and pray with Native American veterans and help them however he can.

“I pray for a lot of people,” he said. “I’m proud of my people, and I love my people to death. I’ll be doing what I do until the day I die.”

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