Happy birthday America – Native American patriotism strong despite history

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Santee Sioux powwow celebrates tribe’s history, including military service.

Spending a weekend in Santee, Nebraska, at our tribe’s annual powwow, I was reminded of the patriotism Native Americans share with their fellow citizens. Statistically, Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than other groups.

Despite a history with government and fellow Americans that borders on hatred, Native Americans have served alongside their brethren in every war, beginning with the American Revolutionary War. Through the wars, tribes have supported a variety of sides – some with American enemies – based on their beliefs. Approximately 1.7 percent of the military is Native American (they make up .8% of the American population), more than any other ethnic group based on per capita. Our family has had four of five brothers serve – two in the Army and one each in the Air Force and Navy.

One school of thought involving military service is that Native Americans have historically viewed service as important. Another thought is that joining the military is a way out of their current environment. A decent job, pay, benefits and college fund are enticing to a young person, who may not see a positive future otherwise.

While Native Americans have served in every war the United States has been involved in, they were not citizens for many of them. Native Americans became American citizens following the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924.

We attended a flag raising ceremony a few hours before the powwow started on Saturday. American flags provided by family members were raised in honor of tribal members who had passed away. Flags belonged to veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. One flag belonged to a former Code Talker from World War II. Native Americans served as communication specialists during WW II because they could use their traditional language. The enemy couldn’t understand or decipher the languages.

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My brother Roger  – a Vietnam veteran – raises a flag during a morning ceremony.

A drum group played several tribal veteran songs before and after the flag raising. My brother Roger and others performed veteran dances around the center, which featured a flag that was given to the family of Rick Kitto, a former tribal chairman and Vietnam veteran. My sister’s partner, Steve, a Marine veteran, joined the others in raising flags.

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Steve – a Marine veteran – and my sister Denise’s partner helps out during the flag ceremony.

During the powwow, veterans led the dancers on to the dance grounds during the Grand Entry. Veterans carried the tribe’s staff, shield and spear for spiritual and historical purposes. As the veterans from various service periods entered the grounds, a drum group performed.

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Santee veterans lead dancers during Grand Entry.

Once the dancers surrounded the center, two staffs were secured on the grounds near the base of the center flag, honoring Kitto. Veterans lined up to receive and greet some of the dance’s royalty.

Veterans – Native American and non-Indians – are invited to participate in a veterans dance. Other tribes honor their veterans during powwows, as well. The Winnebago tribe near Sioux City builds its powwow around welcoming its veterans home. The tribe has dances for each branch of the military.

It impresses me how Native Americans continue to support a government and country that has historically treated them so poorly. But, as a Native American, I share that pride of having served the nation.  I dream that one day the United States will treat Native Americans with the respect that they have shown the country through military service.