Native veterans talk about PBS's ‘The Warrior Tradition’ and their stories

“I know it is easier to be in a war zone than to be an Indigenous person trying to survive every day in the United States”

More than a dozen Native American veterans from all branches of service to include the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army National Guard, were featured in the recent PBS film The Warrior Tradition. The one-hour documentary aired on Veterans Day, November 11.

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The film explored a rich history, including scouts, both World Wars, Vietnam, Korea, and ongoing deployments in Afghanistan and nearby territories.

Veterans from many Native nations were profiled, such as the Comanche and Apache Tribes of Oklahoma, the Mississippi Choctaw, Navajo Nation, and Menominee.

We spoke to four Native Veterans about the film and their service.

The Native veterans we spoke to are Arizona State Senator Jamescita Peshlakai, a Dine’ and former Army specialist, Jeff Means, a University of Wyoming Native American historian and former Marine Corps, Corporal from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Lanny Asepermy, Comanche/Kiowa, a former Army Sergeant Major and teacher Leslie Smith Montemayor, Muscogee Creek, who served in the Army National Guard.

Arizona State Senator Jamescita Peshlakai, Navajo Nation.

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Senator Peshlakai
E-4 Specialist
US ARMY
1989-1997

Tell us about your service.

I enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1989 as a noncommissioned officer. I was out of basic training in time for the Persian Gulf War's Desert Storm by Christmas of 1990. My unit was the 403rd Combat Support Hospital, and my job was Headquarters Administrative Specialist (71L). I served for a total of eight years from 1989 to 1997.

As a Navajo woman, with an incredible legacy of your tribe contributing to the military, what are your thoughts?

My tribe was once a matrilineal society, the Dine' traditionally named women as warriors "Dezbah, Nanabah, etc." Women were considered first line defense warriors against hunger, poverty, and protectors of our children, the future. I am a U.S. war veteran, proud, yet humble, because it is a tremendous responsibility, the same as being a woman.

As a woman in my tribe today, acculturation has taken our leadership rolls by western patriarchy, displacing our sacred duties. There is also the turmoil in being a US military veteran. It means I was a soldier for a government that once sought to destroy and erase my people from the face of the earth. Ultimately, I defended my sacred homeland for our holy people, for our prayers to remain strong and to secure a place for our children's future on our own continent. Veterans Day is a day I remind people of our history, our place, and what it means to us as indigenous people.

How important is it for the story to be told of Native veterans?

This story is essential to be told by "The Warrior Tradition," because the United States is a country of immigrants, on the land of Indigenous peoples, and protecting our democracy is key to our success. Freedom is not free, and many continue a life of success defended by the continuing sacrifice of our indigenous warriors and young service members. The Declaration of Independence states we all have inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Indigenous people live by laws, policies, and societal norms meant to deprive us of these fundamental rights. Educating our children to instill pride, know the struggle of prior generations, and understanding identity is of paramount importance.

Can you tell me a bit of your story? Or a memorable moment in your military service?

Raised on the Navajo reservation of Arizona, my life today as a state senator is much the same from 50 years ago. My home has no running water, no electricity, and the government still owns the land. As a combat war veteran, I know it is easier to be in a war zone than to be an Indigenous person trying to survive every day in the United States. Because in war, you have the might of the United States military behind you, but as a tribal person at home, the government is not friendly to us. Here on reservations or border towns, you only have yourself to make sure you have water, food, fuel, and life is harsh. That is my take away from my service.

Please share anything you would like to share or say to a former military buddy, or thoughts to servicemembers and their families today.

Today my life is dedicated to educating veterans and all people of our history, our realities and that tribal governments are NOT responsible for shouldering the financial responsibility of the United States. When veterans on reservations ask for post-service support, we are told to go to urban VAs. Jurisdiction, laws, and policies become insurmountable obstacles for the U.S. government to reach our most needy veterans. Christopher Columbus should have been told he had no jurisdiction here. This is why, as a state senator, I sponsor legislation every year to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in Arizona.

My service friends and war comrades are still close to me even after 30 years.

Jeff Means, Oglala Sioux, University of Wyoming Native American historian, Marine Corps, Corporal

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As a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, with a rich history of military service on both sides, what are your thoughts regarding Veteran’s Day last Monday?

This past Veteran’s Day, my mind turns to my Native Nation’s long tradition of fighting for their people. First, they fought for their families, their village, and their tribe. Later they fought also for their new nation, the United States of America. They always fought for their Nation’s safety, and they did so with honor and courage.

Today we are a Nation divided. My hopes and prayers are that all Veterans will look to their own honor and courage as we look to the future. We all must help this great Nation by seeking those traits in our Nation’s leaders, and demanding that only men and women who possess true honor and courage be chosen to lead our beloved country.

How important is it for this story to be told of Native veterans?

It is extremely important to tell the stories of Native veterans. Ethnically, Native Americans serve in the United States armed forces in a greater percentage than any other group. Their stories of sacrifice, bravery, and commitment embody not only true American patriotism, but the strength of character inherent in their Native Nations.

Can you tell me a bit of your story? Or a memorable moment in your military service?

I joined the Marine Corps when I was 23, after working various jobs after high school. After realizing that I did not want to work construction or retail for the rest of my life, I decided to go back to school. Seeking the GI Bill to help pay tuition I sought out the Air Force and Army, but neither were interested. I knew I didn’t want to join the Navy, no offense, so as a last resort I stuck my head into the Marine recruiting office and told the corporal and first sergeant who were there that the Air Force and Army had already turned me away, and asked if they were interested. The first sergeant walked over, put his huge arm around me and said, “son, let’s see what the Marine Corps can do for you.” The rest is history.

Please share anything you would like to share, or say to a former military buddy, or thoughts to servicemembers and their families today.

Semper Fi, and thank you for your service and commitment to our nation. Especially the families of our service members, who so often struggle quietly at home.

Lanny Asepermy, Comanche/Kiowa, Army, Sergeant Major

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As a Comanche/Kiowa veteran, what are your thoughts on this Veteran’s Day?

The Comanche Nation and Kiowa Tribe both evolve from warriors. About 144 years ago in 1875 the Comanches and Kiowas “could fight no more” and were placed onto what was then the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache reservation in southwest Oklahoma.

They were no longer warriors and were restricted as to what we could and could not do. In 1892 we became warriors again as a select few served in the Army with Troop L, 7th Cavalry at Fort Sill until 1897.

We lost our “Warriorship” again until 1917 when members of the Comanches and Kiowas either volunteered or were drafted into the military. Despite not being citizens of the United States until 1924, twenty-three Comanches served overseas, in Europe, during World War I. Eight were wounded in action and five served as Code Talkers. Beginning in 1940 before the start of World War II, 1,158 Comanches and a similar number of Kiowas have served, with honor, in the military. Twenty-three Kiowas, Comanches and Apaches have been either killed in action, died of combat wounds, died in captivity or were declared dead while missing in action. Another eight were prisoners of war including two whose bodies have not been recovered. Instead of being warriors we have now become Veterans.

Our oral history dictates that during the pre-reservation era that when we return from battle celebrations were held to welcome us home. Now celebrations are held to welcome our military home when they return from battle. Veterans Day is one of those modern-day celebrations in which we recognize those who have served.

How important is it for this story to be told of Native veterans for example as in “The Warrior Tradition?”

The video is one of a few individual thoughts and stories about the Indian and the military. There are thousands of other unheard thoughts and individual stories about our Indian veterans that are not in the video. Each nation or tribe recognize their veterans in their own way. The video is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a beginning. The video gives the non-Indian a perspective of how a few Indians feel about the military and why we serve.

Can you tell me a bit of your story? Or a memorable moment in your military history?

I personally served in the Army from 1966-90. I began as an Armor Crewman and retired as a Depot Sergeant Major. Assignments included Vietnam for one year with the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division; Korea for 31 months with the 7th Infantry Division and 19th Support Group; Germany for 39 months with US Army, Europe, and 7th Army and Hawaii for 22 months with the 11th Infantry Brigade and Western Command. Also served at Fort Bliss, TX for Basic Combat Training and as a student at the US Army Sergeants Major Academy; Fort Knox, KY for Advanced Individual Training and as a Drill Sergeant; Fort Sill, OK as an Artillery One Station Unit Training First Sergeant; Camp Mabry, TX as the 5th Army Senior Army Advisory Group Sergeant Major and Fort Hood, TX with the 1st Cavalry Division.

There are many memorable moments during my 24 ½ years of military service. The physical hardships of enduring temperatures of -20 in Korea and the heat of 110+ in Vietnam, the constant monsoon rains in Vietnam, Korea and Hawaii, the snow and cold in Korea and Germany, going without a bed, hot meal or a shower for as many as thirty-days at a time, the emotional hardship of seeing American and enemy dead, not seeing your family for a year or longer, missing Christmas and Thanksgiving at home. On the upside I met and served with thousands of Americans of many races, color and backgrounds. The vast majority were all good soldiers.

Teacher Leslie Smith Montemayor, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Army National Guard

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I am always grateful for the opportunity to serve my country and humbled when those in the community take the time to honor us. I always reflect on those who sacrificed their time or lives and didn’t receive encouragement for their service.

My time in the military has definitely helped me to be flexible in the classroom so that I can deal with any obstacles that pop up on any day. My experience has also helped me to connect with all my students regardless of their background and helps me to connect with some who might have a tendency to push people away.

It is important for this story to be told so that we can properly honor those who have faithfully and courageously served our nation, regardless of how we were treated.

I was very proud and grateful to know that people wanted to know the stories of Native women. I myself do not feel like I have accomplished anything spectacular, but I am privileged to say that I have served next to some phenomenal women whose leadership and integrity still influence me today.

A memory that will always be dear to me is the powwow we had in Iraq in 2004. We had an amazing person, SFC Debra Mooney, who organized and plan the dance. Looking back now it still amazes me all that she was able to accomplish in a short amount of time with very little resources and all while maintaining our missions. It was so comforting and healing to have a part of “home” on the other side of the world. She has been a huge blessing to me. 

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling and Instagram - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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