ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- Russell Begaye, Navajo Nation president, spoke to an audience of about 220 people during the Native American Heritage Month observance in Heritage Hall, here, Nov. 24.

Begaye, who was elected to his position on April 4, talked about his administration and how much his people respect their warriors.

"The top priority is always the warrior, because the warriors, they protect your way of life. They protect your land, they protect your language, they protect your culture -- they protect who you are," he said. "The way that we run our administration is the warriors are always honored first; they are always at the point of what we do."

Begaye stated that his administration has worked hard to implement the Navajo Nation Veterans Act by improving health services to veterans, by building priority housing for veterans and by advocating for veteran employment initiatives.

"There should be no such thing as a homeless veteran," he said.

Begaye is the uncle of last year's keynote speaker, Lt. Col. Tracey Clyde, senior human resources integrator, G-1 (Human Resources) First U.S. Army. Clyde said he was glad his uncle came to speak at Rock Island Arsenal.

"It helps Americans who aren't familiar with Native American culture become familiar with at least one tribe, one of the largest tribes at that," he said. "This event helps people understand how our government is run and how our culture blends in with our government."

Before the observance, Begaye, Maj. Gen. Kevin O'Connell, commanding general, U.S. Army Sustainment Command, and Col. Elmer Speights, commander, U.S. Army Garrison-Rock Island, visited the grave of John J. Willie in the Rock Island National Cemetery.

Willie was a Marine and one of the original Navajo Code Talkers during WWII. Begaye said visiting Willie's grave was personally significant.

"I'm so busy, my schedule is very full. But to be able to come to an alone Code Talker buried here on the island, that's really something to me," he said. "To hear we have a Code Talker way out there in Illinois at Rock Island and no one goes to visit … I wanted to stand there by the graveside to honor and give my respect to his spirit. That was a moving moment for me -- that is one of the main reasons why I'm here."

The Native American Coalition of the Quad Cities started the event with ceremonial dancing, drumming, singing and historical storytelling. Larry Lockwood, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and instructor for Native American Heritage Perspective, wore his elaborate regalia and talked about Native American culture.

"Our people always remember the sacrifice that our warriors make," said Lockwood, who said his tribal name translates to Black Morning Star.

"Native Americans are the only ethnicity that honors our warriors in song and dance," he later continued. "Within every tribe, we have what we call 'flag songs.' These flag songs are national anthems for every tribe … and what these flag songs do is they honor, and they remember, the sacrifice made by our veterans."

Sgt. Maj. Brian Marone, sergeant major, Distribution Management Center, said he was grateful to be exposed to a different culture.

"The most significant thing was the representation of an entire nation that people forget about. They showed what it means to be a part of that great nation, not just one tribe but all Native Americans," he said. "They gave us great words of wisdom, not just for us in the military but for all Americans throughout the U.S."

Marone also said he appreciated the speakers' emphases on veterans.

"I really appreciated, and I'm sure the rest of the veterans out there really appreciated, that someone else has another voice for them that puts them out front and lets them know that they are appreciated for the sacrifices … and that their families won't be forgotten."

Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Bryant, command sergeant major, U.S. Army Sustainment Command, also said he appreciated Begaye's presentation.

"I thought he really spoke on the same points that, especially us in the military, we understand," he said.

ASC funded the food sampling for the observance. The First Army Equal Opportunity Office coordinated the event, and First Army paid for Begaye's travel. Begaye served as the keynote speaker free of charge.