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Learning From the ‘Way of the Warrior’

Native American veterans honored, reintegrated into communities

Sep. 8, 2010
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The grandfather of Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) producer and host Patty Loew was among the 12,000 Native American men who enlisted in World War I.

“I imagined him standing up there taking the oath to defend the Constitution, as all recruits do, and I thought about how ironic it was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any protection under the Constitution,” Loew says.

It was an image that has always remained with her, and was, in part, inspiration for the 2007 WPT documentary Way of the Warrior.

Native Americans have served in the U.S. military in greater numbers proportionate to other ethnic groups and are among the most highly decorated. Using veterans’ stories from both world wars, Korea and Vietnam, Way of the Warrior explores the complexities surrounding Native American military service, and also, according to Loew, examines the meaning of “ogichidaa—one who protects and follows the way of the warrior.”

According to the documentary, among the patterns that emerge during periods of war is “Indian Scout Syndrome,” Loew says. “From very early on, Native soldiers were put out in front because the American military believed that they were somehow innately better at warfare.”

The stereotypical and even “superhuman” qualities attached to Native soldiers had severe consequences, as they were placed in dangerous situations more often. In Vietnam, “Native American soldiers were three times more likely to see moderate to heavy combat” than other soldiers, Loew says. Facing greater danger and being exposed to greater trauma meant higher instances of PTSD, she adds.

Community Reintegration

Loew and her colleague, historian Tom Holm, author of Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War, found that Native American veterans who returned to communities that still practiced purification and healing rituals were much less likely to exhibit strong symptoms of PTSD.

“Virtually every community I spent time in had purification rituals for returning veterans,” Loew says. “The Hopi wash the hair of their returning veterans in yucca leaves and give them new names. They would spend a period of 24 to 48 hours with clan members and they would tell their war stories. The Ojibwe, my own, have lodge ceremonies. The Plains tribes have sweat lodge ceremonies. These ceremonies are a part of reintegrating veterans into their communities.”

As men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan, Loew says that the concept of reintegration is something that mainstream America could learn from Native communities.

“They’ve come back wounded emotionally and psychologically and we as a community have an obligation to them as individuals, but we also have an obligation to protect ourselves and there are protocols in place in Indian country for that. We don’t have protocols in place in the larger community,” she says. “We’re ready to hand them papers and say here’s your G.I. loan and here’s where you get housing assistance, and here’s the directions to the nearest V.A. hospital—but that is not enough.”

Jesse Torres, statewide spokesman for the Wisconsin Indian Veterans Association (WIVA) and longtime veterans’ rights advocate, served two tours in Vietnam in the Navy. A member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Torres began advocating for veterans within months of his return from duty in 1967. He formerly served as the tribal services coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, has volunteered with Wisconsin Veterans Stand Down for 20 years and was awarded an eagle feather—the highest honor awarded in Native American cultures—for his activism on behalf of veterans.

Torres distinguishes Native American ceremonies and eagle feather presentations performed among his tribe and other tribes as more personal than honorary ceremonies held at state or national levels. It was a realization that took time, he says.

“When I go before people that have a different way of looking at life, life seems more precious,” he says. “Going back to a couple hundred years ago, we had ceremonies—purification ceremonies, ceremonies that help people adjust after war. We knew that war was not right. We knew that when you went into war you were a different person when you came out. Now, after all these years the military has started to look at that that way, that maybe we should be helping these men and women become civilians again after being in these situations of death and destruction.

“We just look at it differently,” he continues. “We don’t honor the war; we honor the warrior.”

Indian Summer Festival runs Sept. 10-12 on the Summerfest grounds. This year’s theme, “Honoring Our Warriors,” recognizes veterans, active military personnel and first responders.


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