FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Nov. 21, 2019) -- Nearly two and a half centuries ago, American colonists waged war in an attempt to wrest control of their country from British rule.

Among the first American allies in the Revolutionary War were the people of the Oneida Indian Nation.

"It was not an easy time for us," said Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation. "Our people viewed it as a fight between brothers, and that we should not get involved. But as the conflict developed, we were right in the middle of it."

As guest speaker at the National American Indian Heritage Month observance Nov. 20 at Fort Drum, Halbritter said that was a difficult decision his people had to make. As part of the Six Nations Confederacy, they had remained neutral during the French and Indian War but then allied with England after the conflict ended.

The Confederacy was fractured during the Revolutionary War with only the Oneida and Tuscarora nations pledging allegiance to the Americans.

"It was the first time we as a people had to fight other members of the Confederacy to maintain our loyalty to the colonists," Halbritter said.

Halbritter said that American Indians have a proud history of military service in the U.S., and that they have served in every conflict since the War for Independence. Today, there are more than 31,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native members of the Armed Forces.

"Sometimes I wonder why so many of our people are willing to serve in our military," Halbritter said. "It may reflect our patriotic commitment in defending this country."

Halbritter said that American Indians may be drawn to military service because of the many educational and professional advantages it provides.

"The Armed Forces has consistently provided access to specialized training and job opportunities that has been historically closed to Native Americans elsewhere," he said.

He said that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills sets are in high demand as the world becomes more technologically advanced.

"In general, access to quality education has been a challenge to Native American populations, and Native American communities continue to grapple with high dropout rates and low college enrollment," Halbritter said. "The education gap is particularly acute in the STEM fields."

He said that is not due to a lack of desire but because of compounding factors related to poverty, racism and geographic isolation.

"Our young people are worthy of so much more, and the military provides important stepping stones for our people," Halbritter said. "When it comes to STEM education, the military is playing a constructive role."

He credited the Defense Department for its initiatives like the Army Educational Outreach Program that supports STEM education and the expansion of the G.I. Bill to help transitioning service members receive STEM training.

"We honor the military's focus on STEM education and training, and its commitment to ensuring all Americans have access to these tools for the future," Halbritter said. "There is no other American institution that has so fully called upon the Native American spirit and welcomed us into its ranks in so many walks of life."

He said that it was important that these observances also acknowledge the hardships and continuing struggles that American Indians still face -- poverty, racism and stereotypes, to name a few. However, the Armed Forces remains one of the leading institutions that values diversity and inclusion.

"The U.S. military has treated us as equals and leaders, not as relics and punchlines," Halbritter said. "As the United States' most diverse organization -- one that values higher education and offers limitless training -- the military serves as one of the best chances in which Native Americans have to take hold of their future."