The Tokala Yell: Reviving the Traditional Warrior Spirits of Today

David Rooks/Mervin Garneaux and Vincent Ten Fingers honor the Native warrior spirit through the Wild Horse Butte Tokala Inter-Tribal Honor Guard.

“Here they come, you’re gonna hear that Tokala yell!” says the arena announcer in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

Sure enough, the crowd-pleasing peal rises above the drum and dancers in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Pretty soon, more dancers join in.

The distinctive staccato cry has become a signature call for the Wild Horse Butte Tokala Inter-Tribal Honor Guard at gatherings around the Northern Plains. “Sometime around the middle of an honoring song for veterans, the drum will pick up a little,” explains Tokala Honor guard member and co-founder Mervin Garneaux, Sicangu Lakota, reached at his home in Hot Springs, South Dakota. “It’s a traditional Lakota war cry; it picks everybody up.” It’s a verbal affirmation of the high regard communities here have for the honor guard, and its selfless service during the past 20 years.

“It’s a revival of the spirit of traditional warrior societies,” adds Wild Horse Butte Tokala co-founder Vincent Ten Fingers, Oglala Lakota. “The Tokala yell gets all the veterans who can [stand] on their feet and into the circle. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun too.”

The Wild Horse Butte Tokala Inter-Tribal Honor Guard had its genesis back in 1994, when Garneaux and Ten Fingers were employees at the VA hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The two Vietnam veterans would drive Native veterans under the care of the hospital to local Wacipis and veterans events. The trips to the Pow Wows usually involved a weekend stay. During grand entry, the national, tribal, state and POW/MIA flags would be posted by an honor guard.

After seeing the flags posted by honor guards from various VFW’s and local Legion Posts weekend after weekend, they thought, “Hey, we could do that,” said Garneaux. In 1995, Ten Fingers and Garneaux went to their supervisor to request permission to start an honor guard that consisted of Native American VA employees and patients.

“All we asked was that they be honorably discharged. We’d furnish the t-shirts and caps; they had to provide their BDUs; hopefully they still had them,” explained Ten Fingers. “Also, from the beginning we didn’t charge a fee. We’re not like the American Legion or VFW, and we don’t pursue others for membership; they come to us.”

Twenty plus years later, both men in their early 70s, the White Horse Tokalas are still going strong. “Basically, it’s always four or five of us that go, for the simple reason we’re all retired, so we can do it, we’re available,” Garneaux said. The pair estimates that over the two decades they have posted colors at over 500 pow wows, not to mention marching in hundreds of parades and other veterans gatherings.

Another service provided by the White Horse Tokalas is personal and solemn. Whenever and wherever they are called to honor a fallen veteran for a wake, funeral, and burial, they go. Asked how often, the pair paused in silence. “So many times,” Ten Fingers said thoughtfully. He shook his head, “It’s hard to remember all of them.” After a little matchbook calculating, the pair agreed they have guarded the bodies of comrades laid to rest well over a thousand times.

At no time have they requested compensation. They just go. Whether on a lonely butte in a sparsely populated family plot on a reservation, or at the pristine meadows of Sturgis National Cemetery, they are there, on time, smartly dressed, combat boots at a high shine, ready to render their three shot volley just before taps.

Ten Fingers, an Army veteran from 1966 to ‘68, served on a swift boat in the Mekong Delta and up the Perfume and Saigon Rivers during his tour of Vietnam. He noted the White Horse Tokala’s have had tribal flags donated to them from nearly every tribe in the region. About his tour he had fond memories of those he served with. “We were always getting sniper fire from the caves and jungle on the shorelines. We were on night patrol all the time. It can still bother me.”

Garneaux also served in the Army, from 1964 to ‘67 with the 1st Air Cavalry. About Vietnam he remained silent, but said it was a real privilege to help brothers and sisters in arms and their families when they needed it. “We don’t ask for any compensation, though sometimes there’ll be a small donation for our gas. Just so long as the departed veteran gets to hear those honoring volleys right before he’s laid to rest.”

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