In October, Indian Country Today Media Network reported on the planned Indian Warrior Journey, a canoe trip conceived by Air Force pilot Captain Lee Wilkerson for this summer, which he hopes will involve members from every Native American tribe in the U.S. Since that article was published, he says he has received support from more than 50 tribes.
It all started with a vision; Wilkerson had a recurring dream of a giant eagle that flew over the continental United States. The ground was covered by Native American warriors in traditional dress, lying in the dust. As the eagle landed by these warriors they were revived and became powerful. One warrior threw a spear with two eagle feathers on it, and Wilkerson caught it while the other warriors were raising the American flag.
After two years of thinking about the dream, and with input from various elders along the way, Wilkerson came to the conclusion that the dream was a message that he needs to work to get more Native recruits for the United States Air Force. He believes we need a new generation of Native warriors, and he is currently attempting to put together an all-Native American National Guard unit.
To bring attention to this project Wilkerson and his brother, Nathaniel Wilkerson – who are Tsimshiam, Haida, and Tlingit – are planning an 850-mile canoe trip from Juneau, Alaska to the Quinault Nation, near Olympia, Washington, in traditional Haida canoes they are making. He is inviting two young men from every Native American nation in the country to join him. He says he will need to raise $360,000 for the project.
Along with putting together a Native National Guard unit, and the canoe journey, he also plans to raise a 300 foot high/30 foot diameter copper clad totem pole, which he calls the “Native American Statue of Liberty.” He also plans to raise two traditional totem poles in the process and to institute an annual Native youth program to expose youths to educational opportunities, and also to provide leadership and heritage training.
“In Alaska alone, a Native American youth commits suicide every three days,” Wilkerson said. “It’s not as bad in the lower 48 states, but keep in mind that three generations ago there were hardly any suicides among Native American youth; something has happened in their family structure and their cultural makeup that’s not working for them.” Wilkerson sees the continuity losses from the boarding school era as a major culprit in this disillusionment.
The Alaska governor’s office called Wilkerson after the first article came out and said that an all Native National Guard unit would be segregation. He told them, “Our people are the only people I know who are on a reservation right now. Is that not segregation?”
“If they’re going to take away segregation then they’ve got to take our people off the reservations and give them back their land, and that’s not going to happen, so give them a unit that represents their land.” He said the governor’s representative was taken aback by that concept.
Wilkerson sees the fee for the youth camp to be around $1,000 per young man. As the cost of these projects build he is looking to the United States government to pitch in. He wants the mentors for this program to come out of the military, now that operations in Iraq have wound down, and for the military to pay them their salaries to work on this program.
“We are challenging the governor of Alaska to send these guys to Quinault with full military pay; that will show that the state supports us,” Wilkerson said. With so many Native youth suicides, he sees sending mental health workers as merely a Band-Aid, while he believes his program can actually heal the wounds of the past.
“Instead of them sending out some hired shrink or counselor from who-knows-where, we’re asking them to send their best people from each state, their Native warriors who are employed by the National Guard, to help us with this two year program, which is a reasonable request.” Wilkerson said. “I want to set it up so we can utilize the military strength, so they can use some of their money to help us, because three generations ago they used some of their money to tear us down. We’re saying ‘We’re not accusing you, just come and help us.’ The governor can utilize the National Guard to help with emergencies, and a death every three days is an emergency, in my eyes.”
Wilkerson wants to involve young Native Women also, but for his first year he says they are going to be hard pressed just to set up a camp for young men.