Native American Soldiers beat drum of warrior spirit
December 6, 2011
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 6, 2011) -- Four Native American Soldiers drummed and sang for guests at the National Museum of the American Indian Dec. 2, while telling their story of war in Iraq, Korea and World War II.
One even knew some of the scouts involved in the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand.
Joseph Medicine Crow, a 96-year-old World War II veteran who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama, is the grandson of White Man Runs Him, one of Custer's Crow scouts.
He also was awarded the Bronze Star and the Legion d'honneur.
Growing up, speaking Crow and English, Medicine Crow not only knew four of Custer's Crow scouts, he would act as interpreter whenever anyone came out to interview his grandfather about the battle. He became so interested that he became the tribal historian.
In his talk at the museum, he said he had completed the four deeds necessary to becoming a war chief. One was stealing an enemy's horse.
"In World War II, I managed to have captured 50 head of horses. These were not ordinary horses. They belonged to SS officers, you know," said Crow.
"And here's this sneaky old Crow Indian now following them, watching them. So they camped for the night. I sneak in there and took all their 50 head of horses, left them on foot. So I got on one, looked around there and I even sang a Crow victory song all by myself. Crows do that when they think they're all by themselves. They do things like that. So I sang a victory song," he said.
He recounted many tales and then asked everyone who wanted to join him in dance to get up on stage.
"So now, to honor the memory of those who didn't come back, warriors in uniform, and also to say thank you to those modern Indian boys and girls in service throughout the world, I'm going to sing my old song, my war song," Joseph Medicine Crow said as he began drumming and singing.
Retired Master Sgt. Chuck Boers (Lipan Apache/Cherokee) an Iraq War veteran and the recipient of two Bronze Star and three Purple Heart medals, and Crow are the only two living war chiefs.
Boers gained his title while still on active duty, Dec. 31, 2009. He served 26 years in the Army and retired that same day. Crow received his title after returning home from the war and getting out of the Army.
"Native Americans have willingly served in the U.S. military during every one of its wars, and their numbers in the armed forces today exceed the percentage of any other ethnic group," said Historian Herman J. Viola in the preface to his book, "Warriors in Uniform: The legacy of American Indian heroism."
Viola is curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and was the first speaker at the event.
Throughout the 19th century, Viola said, the government was very reluctant to let Indians be in military units except in all-Indian groups like scouts.
"One officer said Indians in uniform with our Soldiers would ruin the moral fiber of our Army. Indians don't have the patriotic instincts that an American must have."
He said it was racism that kept Indians behind because of the fear that white Soldiers would have to take orders from an Indian.
"But the big break-through for Indians came in World War I. Thousands and thousands of Indians enlisted. Several tribes declared war on the Germans. They weren't citizens but they felt their country was in danger and they went to war."
The Germans, he said, were very good at intercepting messages, so one fellow who had some Indians in his unit talked to two Choctaw boys and said "would you mind sending messages in your language? And maybe we can make something happen here so the Germans won't understand us."
"So the Choctaw became major code talkers, but other tribes were also code talkers in World War I," Viola said.
The Korean War was represented by John Emhoolah (Kiowa), a veteran who joined the Oklahoma Thunderbird Division -- the 45th Infantry Division of the Oklahoma National Guard -- when he was still in high school and later helped lobby for the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act.
Sgt. 1st Class Debra Kay Mooney (Choctaw), an Iraq War veteran, organized and hosted a powwow in an Iraq war zone in 2004.
She knew this was something she was supposed to do after praying about it, even though it was going to be in a war zone. Although she had to get permission, it was granted quickly by her battalion commander.
And then the work began.
"The drum, of course, was the pivotal point. If we couldn't get a drum, we couldn't have a powwow," Mooney said.
The first person she called after getting permission was Marshall Gover.
"Marshall Gover is actually my adopted uncle, and he's a Vietnam vet and has been into powwows most of his life. So, I called him and asked him what to do. He asked me what I was going to do about a drum. And he was willing to jump on a plane and bring his drum team with him from Pawnee, Okla., to the war zone.
"But he took his time to make sure I knew everything about putting a powwow together. He made sure I had all the pieces and parts that I needed to know how to tell these guys what to do. The second call was my mother, which is his sister -- my adopted mom, and told her what we were doing and what I needed and she went to work on her end," she said.
Then all of her guys called their family members to get everything needed for the powwow as quickly as possible.
"I mean, we had the support of the entire Oklahoma Native American communities," she said.
The powwow, she said, was open for everybody, and it became an opportunity to educate Soldiers on native culture, to give them something different than being blown up with rocket-propelled grenades and everything else, and to give them a chance to breathe America.
"What's more American than Indian?" she asked. "We even coined the phrase that the drum is the heartbeat, the spirit of the Native American."
The drummers, she said, named the drum "Desert Thunder."
The powwow extended over two days with about 300 people attending from the entire base, eating Indian tacos, a staple of the powwow.
"What inspires these young people to enlist?" Viola asked.
"One important factor is the opportunity to continue a proud warrior tradition in which the deeds of battle are considered the highest form of bravery," he said.