By Cody Fink, grade 12
2008 Reconnecting The Circle Essay Winner
Why is it important to understand patriotism in Indian Country? Throughout the history of our nation, we have witnessed people from all walks of life express their love to this great nation. They may do this by voting during the election process, displaying the American flag, or showing their respect to government and military officials. For the American Indian, the meaning is more complicated. Early on, they struggled to coexist with the rest of society while trying to maintain their own way of life. In the process, they established a unique sense of patriotism by recognizing their own connection to the United States and committing themselves to the goal of preserving the freedom and values of this nation, not just for themselves, but for every American.
Many of us consider our history beginning with European colonization. For Native Americans though, tribal populations already existed and they were taking care of this land, their people, and respecting the nature around them long before our ancestors arrived here. When European settlers finally did come, the situation changed. At first, the two cultures maintained peaceful relations but when the colonists began to move westward, they began taking control of the Indian territories as well as the livelihood of native people. The peace between the two suffered greatly and as a result, wars raged on for many years. It was the pride of American Indians who strived to keep their culture alive throughout these battles, just as our military has fought to preserve the freedom of American citizens for more that two hundred years.
As the struggle between settlers and American Indians took place, there were also many accounts of Native Americans who contributed to military operations as early as the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Then, during the Civil War, Indians were recruited by both the Union and the Confederate armies to help the cause of each side. These military efforts produced several famous Native Americans such as Colonel Stand Watie, who led his Cherokee regiment to capture the Union artillery batteries at the Battle of Pea Ridge, and Ely S. Parker, who became a general and served as secretary under General Ulysses S. Grant. Their leadership inspired many other American Indians to join the cause in an effort to slow expansion into Indian lands with the intention of preserving their heritage.
The twentieth century brought with it several wars outside the American borders and thousands of brave American Indians fought in each one of these battles. In both World Wars, the Navajo Code Talkers played a critical role in keeping the communication lines open with their native language which proved to save thousands of lives in the end. Another hero from the World War II era was Ira Hayes. After storming the shore of Iwo Jima with his brothers in arms, this courageous man joined four other marines and a Naval Corpsman in raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. The famous photograph captures the important moment in our history and the memory lives on in all marines, Native Americans included, who have sworn allegiance to defend our nation and protect our freedoms at all cost.
Since 2001, our military has been the driving force in the war on terror. There are many individual tales from past wars that can be told, but it is the ultimate sacrifice of one army soldier in 2003 that has grabbed my attention. Lori Piestewa was a Hopi Indian from Arizona who was very proud of her heritage. Her father and grandfather both devoted to their cultural traditions, proudly served within the military during war time. To carry on this family tradition, Lori joined the army and became a member of the 507th Army Maintenance Company that deployed to Iraq in February of 2003. While traveling in a convoy through the desert, she and other members of her unit were ambushed. As the driver, she sped up to avoid enemy fire but was unable to avoid the RPG that claimed the lives of three of her comrades and caused her to crash. PFC Piestewa survived the ambush, but while in captivity, she died from her wounds. She was not only the first woman killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but she was also the first Native American woman that was killed in combat while serving in the United States military. The military awarded her with the Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal, and posthumously promoted her to the rank of Specialist.
After Lori’s death, her family was comforted by military families and other ordinary and influential citizens across the United States who shared in the loss of their daughter. Her story also brought tribes from across the nation together because they, too, felt touched by her bravery and the patriotism that inspired her to become a soldier in the United States Army. Her memory lives on today as various memorials have been put in place to honor her life and her service to this country. A mountain peak and a freeway have also been named in her honor as well as the creation of the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games that takes place each year in Arizona.
Lori Piestewa’s legacy is important just as every Native American who has served before her. Their service to this nation, to their people, and to their heritage symbolizes the complexity of their unwavering patriotism. It also shows us that through diversity, we are all still Americans who cherish the right to be free.
American Indians have played a vital role in the shaping of this great country. They have strived to coexist in society and through their honor, their courage, and their sacrifice, they have strived to defend freedom for themselves and for all Americans from the very beginning. As a United States citizen, I appreciate these courageous men and women in uniform for their patriotic service and their selfless acts of bravery. They have taught me that anything is obtainable if you set your mind to it, including freedom. This is why we need to understand the meaning of patriotism in Indian country.
“We are all Americans: Native Americans in the Civil War.” NativeAmericans.com. 17 Jan. 2009. http://www.nativeamericans.com/CivilWar.htm
Elliott, Michael. “Custer’s Last Stand and American Patriotism.” JuneauEmpire.com. 26 June 2008. 17 Jan. 2009.
“Native Warriors.” The Official Site of the Medal of Honor. 17 Jan. 2009. http://www.medalofhonor.com/NativeWarriors.htm
“Lori Piestewa.” Wikipedia, The Free Encylopedia. 19 Dec. 2008. 17 Jan. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lori_Piestewa
“Soldiers Honored.” American Indians in the U.S. Army. 17 Jan. 2009. http://www.army.mil/americanindians/index.html