The 21st Signal Brigade hosted a Native American Heritage Month observance program with a "Sovereignty, Trust and Resilience" theme at the Community Activities Center on Fort Detrick Nov. 26.
During her opening remarks, Maj. Gen. Barbara R. Holcomb, commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and Fort Detrick, said when you think about all of the challenges they've overcome, Native American people really exude sovereignty, trust and resilience.
Also in attendance were Julianna Albowicz, who presented a senatorial citation on behalf of Sen. Chris Van Hollen, and Taylor Donoghue, who presented a certificate of special congressional recognition on behalf of Rep. John Delaney.
The program's keynote speaker, Dennis W. Zotigh, an American Indian research historian, included a history lesson in his presentation. He also performed a war journey song and a song that is sung to honor veterans. Zotigh educated the audience on the Native Americans' warrior culture, their military contributions and some of the effects on their communities.
"The American Indian culture is very diverse, and that's one thing I want you to know about American Indians," said Zotigh, who is a Kiowa, San Juan Pueblo and Santee Dakota Indian. "Our cultures are as diverse as German is from Jamaican, as Jamaican is from Japanese. They are that different."
According to Zotigh, about 2.1 million Americans or 1.7 percent of the population self identifies as being an Alaska Native or as having American Indian Native heritage, which makes them the "minority of minorities."
That "minority of minorities" has left its impact on the United States on and off the battlefield throughout its history. Today there are more than 9,000 Native American Soldiers serving in the U.S. Army. Native Americans assisting in battle can be traced back to as early as the American Revolution. The abilities and skills that they gained from their warrior culture made them assets on the battlefield.
Zotigh said American Indians influenced the colonists to change their fighting style to a new style of guerilla fighting, an influence that still continues today.
Despite not being granted citizenship until 1924 or being eligible to vote in some states until 1957, many Native Americans still served with honor and distinction. In fact, there are more than 20 Native American Medal of Honor recipients.
"In addition to the Medals of Honor, American Indians have earned 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars and 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses," said Holcomb.
In both World Wars I and II, more than 50,000 Native Americans served. This month also marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I--a war that Native Americans played a vital role in for U.S. forces when they served as code talkers. Their unbreakable code allowed the U.S. and its allies to transmit secret tactical messages and successfully surprise attack the Germans.
"The code talkers endured some of the most dangerous battles providing critical actions in several important campaigns," said Holcomb. "Because of their mission based on mutual trust, thousands of lives were saved."
Code talkers used their indigenous languages to create the coded messages. Even though, in the late 1800s, many Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools designed to make them better citizens. Part of that process included attempts to get the children to move away from speaking their native tribal languages. Those same native languages that later became a powerful tool that aided war efforts.
"In many respects, American Indians are no different than others who volunteer for military service," said Zotigh. "They do however have distinctive cultural values which drive them to serve their country. One such value is the proud warrior tradition."
Zotigh, who currently works for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, added that a memorial to honor Native American veterans is scheduled to break ground in September 2019 and be formally dedicated in 2020.
"We are not Republicans; we are not Democrats; we are not Jewish; we are not American Indians; we are all simply Americans," said Zotigh in his closing.
For information about Native American veterans and their contributions to the military, go to https://americanindian.si.edu/nnavm/heroes/.