One of the great ironies of American history is that Native peoples have fought in every single war the U.S. has engaged in, and yet Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship until 1924, and their access to voting was dependent on each state (Utah was last to grant suffrage in 1962).
Despite this, their commitment to this country continues, with no other demographic serving in the armed forces at the same rate as Native Americans. Because November celebrates Native American Heritage Month and Veterans Day, we want to explore “the warrior spirit” that compels nearly 1 in 5 Native Americans to serve a country that has not always served them.
While there is no single definition for warrior spirit, most Native Americans cite a commitment to protect one’s community coupled with a deep dedication to the land. Traditionally, this meant physically fighting for one’s Native nation. Indigenous people fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, and many credit the American victory to adoption of Native military tactics. During the Civil War, tribal nations again fought on both sides, aligning with the defense of their homelands. Both sides had Native brigadier generals; a Cherokee on the Confederate side and a Seneca for the Union.
Due to the perceived bravery and elevated skills of Native American soldiers, beginning in World War I they were more often given dangerous assignments, and died at much higher rates, than any other group. It was during this war that the military first began to recognize the potential to use Native languages as codes. The Choctaws transmitted orders in their native tongue that the Germans could not decipher, paving the way for the Code Talkers in World War II.
But it’s shortsighted to only focus on the militaristic aspects of the warrior spirit. At a warrior’s core are enduring Indigenous principles that transcend battle tactics. Jamescita Peshlakai, a Navajo Diné who served in the Gulf War, says that a warrior reflects the strength of her people: “We defend the family, we defend what we love, we are the keepers of knowledge, and ultimately we have a say in where our people are going.” Peshlakai went from strategizing on the battlefield to strategizing in the Arizona State Senate, where she advocates for her people.
The warrior spirit is deeply connected to defending and preserving sacred land, like the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation buying back its ancestral lands to build an interpretive center on the site of the Bear River Massacre, or the Native Americans from many tribes fighting for the environment against the Keystone Pipeline.
For Indigenous people, the land is not something to be conquered, owned or carved up. There is a reciprocity between people and the earth: If we protect and sustain her, she will protect and sustain us.
As Laguna Pueblo poet Paula Gunn Allen wrote, “We are the land. To the best of my understanding, that is the fundamental idea that permeates American Indian life.”
It seems appropriate that Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position, is secretary of the interior, whose responsibility is to maintain and protect federal lands and natural resources. While Haaland never served in the military, both her parents did. Like them she protects the country, in her case by being a steward over its land.
As we celebrate America’s Indigenous people, let us honor those who have served or are still serving our country, who feel called by the warrior spirit to protect lives and land. As former Air Force Capt. D.J. Vanas wrote, “A warrior fights for something bigger than self, leads by example, and isn’t focused on what they can get but what they can do for others. In a constantly changing world, the traditional warrior concept remains unchanged.”
Remember, it is not about battle, ego or glory; it is about sacrifice, service, honor and making sure the land will be here to sustain our children.
Brenda Beyal, a Navajo/Diné, leads the Native American Curriculum Initiative for BYU ARTS Partnership. In 2016, Beyal was honored by the Utah Education Network as an American Graduate Champion. Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor for the Native American Curriculum for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women and Leadership Project, and The Exponent.