Manataka American Indian Council
Our Women Warriors
Their Ultimate Sacrifice
By Brenda Finnicum
Missing in Action - Words that give no information but, have a thousand meanings, at least to the family and friends of those military personnel given this status. Native America has received word that one of our own, at the time of this writing, has been classified as MIA. Army Private First Class Lori Piestewa, [age 22] Hopi, from Tuba City, Arizona was assigned to the 507th Maintenance Company at Fort Bliss, Texas. She was among those unaccounted for when the convoy she was with became lost in southwestern Iraq and ambushed by enemy forces.
[Editors Note: Piestewa is a single mother of two young children.]
This is the first time a Native American woman has been declared Missing in Action. If captured she would be the first American Indian woman to be a Prisoner of War in a foreign land while serving in the United States military.
[Editors Note: Piestewa is the first U.S. servicewoman killed in the Iraqi war and is believed to be the first Native woman in U.S. military service to die in combat. The youngest of 4 children, Lori was the third generation of her family to serve her country. Her father fought in Vietnam and her grandfather was a World War II veteran.]
As with Desert Storm, the controversy continues over where in theaters of operations women should serve and if they should be exposed to the threat of combat and capture. While in today’s warfare the traditional battlefield lines are blurred and all military personnel are susceptible to direct enemy danger, Native American history is replete with stories of women, like PFC Piestewa, who, by necessity or choice, found themselves in the midst of battle.
One of the earliest is the account of Tyonajanegen, an Oneida woman who fought on the side of the United States at the Battle of Oriskany, in New York, in 1777. A bloody, six hour enemy engagement, Tyonajanegen, on horseback, fought by her husband’s side. When her husband became wounded in the wrist she continued to reload his gun so he might continue to fight. Tyonajanegen, also armed with a pistol, used her weapon against the enemy.
In her book, Life amomg the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca, describes how the women of her tribe took part in war, giving, as an example, her sister-in-law.
“One splendid woman that my brother Lee married after his first wife died, went out into the battle-field after her uncle was killed, and went into the front ranks and cheered the men on. Her uncle’s horse was dressed in a splendid robe made of eagles’ feathers and she snatched it off and swung it in the face of the enemy, … and she staid and took her uncle’s place, as brave as any of the men.”
The most gifted and least known Indian woman warrior was Lozen, Apache, who fought with her famous brother Victorio. Lozen chose the path of a warrior – a choice respected by her people. Lozen had the gift of discerning the location of the enemy and, it has been said, that if she had been with Victorio when his band was ambushed by the Mexican army he would not have been killed. One story that demonstrates her bravery tells of her crawling into a line of fire to get a bag of bullets desperately needed by the poorly armed Apaches. Lozen later joined Geronimo, who would eventually choose her as a messenger to arrange the meeting with the American military when he finally surrendered.
In World War II, nurses were routinely exposed to enemy fire. Marcella Ryan LeBeau, Cheyenne River Sioux, remembers the daily buzz bomb attacks of her hospital while in Belgium. In her own words she recalls the night a German pilot strafed the nurses living area:
“On Jan 5, 1945 the 76th was strafed by a German pilot with a 50 mm machine gun. I stood in the door way of my tent ward A-1 and watched him strafe the nurses area-stopping just before he reached the hospital area.”
As our history tells us, Native women have performed with great courage under fire. I have no doubt that whatever situation PFC Piestewa is in she is performing her duties with great skill, her conduct is a credit to the uniform and she is acting with the same courage as those who came before her.
The question would be if danger exists and Indian women have always had the option of volunteering for service why would they choose to enter the military. How did PFC Piestewa come to choose the military as an option? According to media reports her father served in Vietnam and her grandfather is a World War II veteran. Not surprising since, historically, Native people have had the highest proportion of any racial group to serve in the armed forces. Because military service is so entrenched in our culture it is not uncommon for Indian youth to consider joining.
PFC Piestewa had her own motivations for enlisting but, in general Native women join the military for various reasons: patriotism, adventure, travel, education, an opportunity to leave home, health benefits, service, or tradition. But none of these reasons are new.
During the Spanish American War, one young Indian woman, from the Fort Hall Reservation, offered to “go to the seat of war and care for the sick and wounded.” A somewhat dramatic statement but certainly, as a trained nurse, service was her calling.
For Indian women of World War II patriotism and the desire to support their men was a common theme for many. Alvanita Lucero Romero, of the Taos Reservation, had three brothers who were Japanese POWs, as well as, a husband and another brother serving. This inspired her to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Some, such as Grace Thorpe, daughter of famous Indian athlete Jim Thorpe, felt the lure of adventure and travel and joined the Woman’s Army Corps. One young Klamath woman, thought, as a member of the WAAC she was “receiving a valuable addition to her education.”
While the generations may have change many of the reasons that Indian women join remain the same today.
Whatever her motivation, PFC Piestewa chose to join the Army, took an oath of allegiance, swore to defend this country and follow the orders of those appointed over her. She is keeping her promise. I do not know what her political ideas are. I do not know what her thoughts on this war are. For a soldier those things do not matter. Personal feelings cannot stand in the way of duty, honor and country.
There is a difference between the war and the warrior. Non-Native people do not understand the difference. How they treated their returning veterans after Vietnam was a prime example. As Indian people we understand that difference. We know that war changes the human psyche and because of that we welcome our warriors home regardless of the politics of the war in which they fought.
I do not know the specific traditions of the Hopi people but when PFC Piestewa returns home I know she will be honored. I am sure there will be songs and dances. Her people will provide her with the ceremonies that will help heal her and make her whole. She will stand with the other warriors when she enters the sacred circle. The story of her bravery will be told to the children. There will be no talk of politics, or accusations or condemnation. Whatever we feel about the war, we will always honor the warrior.
[Editors Note: At a memorial service held in her honor, snow flakes softly caressed the mourners which included her small son and daughter. According to Hopi tradition, the spirit of the departed returns to the land as moisture. A trust fund to benefit her children has been set up through the Wells Fargo bank and contributions can be made through any of their branches.]
Finnicum, Brenda, The Native Voice, 4/30/03
Native Americans have the highest percentage serving in the military than any other group in America.
More than 12,000 Native Americans served during World War I, though they weren't official U.S. citizens.
More than 44,500 served in World War II, a greater per-capita rate than any other ethnic group.
More than 50,000 served in Vietnam, 90 percent of them as volunteers.
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