Native Americans, who for more than two centuries have consistently battled America’s enemies to protect their homeland, were honored Thursday for their contributions to the U.S. military and the nation by a large turnout of the Fort Drum community at the Commons.
The installation’s observance of National Native American Heritage Month was dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients 2nd Lt. Ernest Childers and Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud Jr. – two Native Americans who distinguished themselves in battles during World War II and the Korean War respectively.
Early in the ceremony, Sgt. 1st Class Joey Mitchell, an equal employment opportunity adviser for the 10th Mountain Division (LI), said it was important to not ignore the painful history Native Americans have endured since the Revolutionary War.
“(It’s) a history of violence, marginalization, broken promises and upended justice,” Mitchell said.
After the singing of the national anthem by Spc. Audra Boss, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division (LI), Mitchell outlined the centurylong history of American observances that honored Native Americans.
The first “American Indian Day” was called by New York’s governor in May 1916. The next major movement towards an official observance came from a proclamation by President Ronald Reagan declaring the last week of November 1986 “National American Indian Week.”
Annual proclamations continued for several years after that until 1990, when President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution to declare November as National American Indian Heritage Month.
Mitchell also said that with tens of thousands of them currently serving in the U.S. military, Native Americans make up the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to defend the U.S.
Before the guest speaker stepped to the podium, Sgt. 1st Class Jefferson Henry, 10th Sustainment Brigade EEO adviser, recited a Native American poem called “To Walk the Red Road.”
“To Walk the Red Road is to know sacrifice, suffering,” Henry read. “It is to understand humility. It is the ability to stand naked before your Creator in all things for your wrongdoings, for your lack of strength, for your uncompassionate way, for your arrogance.
“If you walk the Red Road,” he declared later in the poem, “you know that every sorrow leads to a better understanding, every horror cannot be explained, but can offer growth. To Walk the Red Road is to look for beauty in all things.”
It was the fourth speaking appearance at Fort Drum for Kandice Watson, director of education and cultural outreach for the Oneida Indian Nation, a federally recognized tribe headquartered about 30 miles east of Syracuse.
A member of the “Wolf Clan,” Watson explained that Oneida Indians traced their lineage back to the 14th century. They are one of five, later six, Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance established around the 15th century in the area now known as central New York.
Even though her father, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was not Indian, Watson said in the “matrilineal” Oneida culture, it’s all about one’s mother.
“If your father is full-blooded Indian, but your mother is not, you will not be considered Indian in our community,” she said.
Watson said throughout American history, the Oneida Indian Nation has always served as an ally of the U.S.
“We have never fought against the United States,” she said. “So we have never been considered a conquered nation.
“We are very, very proud to be the United States’ first ally,” she added.
Watson said growing up in poverty on Oneida’s 32-acre reservation during the 1970s was a difficult thing.
“It was a very different place than it is now,” she said. “The Oneida Nation had absolutely no money at that time.”
After a tragic fire on the reservation killed Watson’s aunt and uncle, Oneida leaders realized they could no longer expect to rely on local fire departments, she said. In time, mostly to help fund its own fire department, the reservation began hosting bingo nights.
“We were the very first Indian Nation in this country to open a high-stakes bingo hall,” Watson noted. “The very first purchase we made with our profits was a fire truck.
“Everything that we have today is a direct result of that fire and the Oneida Indian Nation’s ability to say, ‘We are the ones who will determine our fate. We are the ones who will determine our future.’
“The days of us standing around waiting for people to help us, or maybe blaming other people for the situation that we were in, were over,” she added.
Today, the Oneida Nation does make “quite a bit of money,” Watson said. But she pointed out that a common notion suggesting that all Oneida Nation members are rich beyond their wildest dreams is “certainly not the case.”
“We do not give huge amounts of money out to our people,” she said. “We have learned lessons from other tribes that have done that; it is just not a good thing to do.”
Alluding to another Indian Nation that gave $10,000 a month out to each of its members, Watson said such an action would be detrimental, especially for young children who might decide against ever going to college.
“Instead of giving out money, we offer programs and services,” she said.
After Watson’s speech, a video was played to show that Native American “code talkers” were used earlier than previously known.
“It is widely known that during World War II, the U.S. military used a group of Navajo Indians to serve as code talkers to relay messages on the front lines,” Mitchell said. “What isn’t so widely known is that this was not the first time that Native Americans were used in this capacity.
“The first code talkers were made up of a small group of Choctaw Indians assigned to the 142nd Infantry Regiment during World War I,” he added.
The ceremony concluded with Brig. Gen. Michael L. Howard, who will serve as 10th Mountain Division (LI) deputy commanding general – rear, offering Watson a token of the division’s appreciation.
Noting that the last 12 years of deployments have opened his and many others’ eyes to suffering and inequality in the world, the general called Watson’s presentation about the Oneida Nation’s struggles “helpful.”
“For the past 12 years, most of us have served in places where gender equality, racial equality and ethnic equality didn’t exist,” Howard said.