20 February 2005

The Warrior Tradition

Gov. Scharzenegger and others should remember this the next time they get ready to hold court on how NDNs don't "pull their weight..."


American Indian Uphold Warrior Tradition (Archive) thestate.com
Published on: 11/10/2004

Robert Chastain's grandfather used to tell him and his brothers tales about warriors from before the Trail of Tears removal of Southeastern Cherokees through World War II.

"These stories, I have never forgotten," Chastain said. "So when it was my time to become a soldier, I went without hesitation. It was more a matter of honor within myself than anything else."

A student of history might find it difficult to understand why American Indians sign up for the U.S. military in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group.

For generations, the federal government forced them from their ancestral homes, herded them onto reservations and tried to wipe out their cultural heritage.

But that heritage survived in their hearts and spirits, which in large part explains why so many American Indians volunteer to fight for their country.

"There is something inside, so to speak, that makes us want to prove ourselves as warriors," said Chastain, a 53-year-old Cherokee from Anderson who served in the Navy in Vietnam.

In that respect, Chastain is typical of the nearly 190,000 American Indian military veterans. There's no denying that poor economic and educational conditions play a role. American Indians volunteer for military service to improve their lot in life. But there's something deeper that factors into it.

"We've got this warrior thing ingrained in us," said Buster Hatcher, 55, a Waccamaw chief from Aynor. "It doesn't make sense (considering past mistreatment of Native Americans), but I look at it as my country, and most other Native American people do, too."

Even before American Indians became full-fledged U.S. citizens in 1924, about 12,000 of them served in the U.S. military during World War I.

"The warriors of over 500 nations enlisted in the armed forces and gave up their lives in the first and second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and lately the Gulf War," said American Indian historian Will Goins. "Even today our Native American Indian brothers and sisters are fighting the war on terrorism."

After generations of assimilation, American Indians aren't always easy for others to identify. Chastain, for instance, said he remembers his heritage coming up in Vietnam "only because of my rather odd way of praying and 'listening' to the woods speak."

His close buddies who knew of his heritage let him take the lead in the Vietnamese jungle. "I think some of the things that I had learned in my growing up years sort of rubbed off on 'em," he said.

American Indian service members seldom gathered in groups during their military years. But in recent years, many from South Carolina have marched together in a unit during the Veterans Day parade in Columbia.

For Hatcher, it's the highlight of the year. He faced discrimination because of his dark skin growing up in the Pee Dee and he was spit on by protesters when he returned to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois after being injured in Vietnam. But when he marches down Main Street in that parade, people on the sidewalks cheer.

"It's heart-warming," Hatcher said. "It gives you the chills."

American Indian culture doesn't wait for the yearly parade to celebrate its fighters. Nearly every time they gather, they perform some ritual honoring their warriors.

Chastain told of a non-American Indian soldier home on leave from Afghanistan who was invited to join an Indian dance. Women escorted him into the circle, the elder presented him a knife and a blanket, and the other veterans invited him to dance with them.

"That young man walked out of that circle proud, with honor and with tears running down his face," Chastain said.

The group has shown him why American Indians so willingly serve.

"Any man or woman willing to lay down their life, put their future on hold . . . in order to serve their country," Chastain said, "should always be honored as a true warrior."


Post a Comment

<< Home