Guardian of Heritage: A drill sergeant's unyielding commitment to service, culture, and legacy

By Staff Sgt. ShaTyra Reed-CoxDecember 1, 2023

As the sun sets on Native American Heritage Month, casting a warm glow on the final pages of November, we turn our attention to Staff Sergeant Cherise Smallcanyon, whose pride in her heritage goes beyond the designated month of celebration.

In the enduring echoes of cultural pride and resilience, Smallcanyon's story unfolds as a timeless testament to the unbreakable bond between heritage and an unwavering commitment to duty. Hailing proudly from the southwest region of the Navajo Nation in Tolani Lake, Ariz., Smallcanyon's journey from her ancestral lands to the role of a dedicated drill sergeant assigned to Charlie Company, 232nd Medical Battalion, 32nd Medical Brigade at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, is a narrative woven with threads of perseverance and tradition.

The parallels between Smallcanyon's Army life and her upbringing on the reservation are striking. The customs and traditions deeply ingrained in Army life mirror the very essence of Smallcanyon's existence on the reservation.

“The values are very similar. I was raised to be resilient and tough-minded to endure," she explains. "There is an internal belief that if we are tough, both mentally and physically, we will overcome anything."

Rooted in principles of resilience, respect, and a profound love for the land, Smallcanyon carried these values with her when she enlisted in the Army. As a drill sergeant, she plays a pivotal role in shaping the next generation of Soldiers, blending the discipline required by military training with the rich cultural tapestry of her Navajo background.

“My culture and my upbringing on the reservation has made the way I mold Soldiers less difficult by remembering where I came from,” Smallcanyon asserts. “Growing up on the reservation makes you humble and thankful for what you got, which is what I like to instill in future medics.”

Smallcanyon's commitment to her cultural roots extends beyond her military service; it is a guiding force in her role as a mother. Her personal mission revolves around preserving the Navajo language, Diné Bizaad, a linguistic treasure that has played a vital role in U.S. military operations since World War II.

Raised with a deep appreciation for the importance of preserving the rich history and traditions of the Navajo people, Smallcanyon ensures that her children, whose paternal grandfather was a Navajo Code Talker, continue to speak Diné Bizaad.

“I love to teach and instill the Navajo language in my kids,” she explained. “I teach it through conversation, explanation, and by exposing them to Family members who also speak the language."

Despite the demands of her military career, Smallcanyon takes the time to immerse her children in the language and customs of their ancestors. She believes that maintaining a connection to their heritage provides a unique strength and resilience, qualities that she sees as essential not only in military service but in life.

“I love to take them to the reservation where I grew up, so they never forget where they come from,” she said. “It's about instilling the same pride and resiliency in them that I was taught."

The decision for her children to spend part of their childhood on the reservation is to ensure they have a greater understanding and appreciation of their heritage.

"They express interest in learning about our culture and language by asking questions," Smallcanyon continues. "Even though my kids aren't growing up on the reservation, every opportunity to visit fills them with eagerness to learn."

Smallcanyon stands as a beacon of cultural preservation, underscoring that the strength of our nation lies not just in military service but in the richness of cultural diversity. Her story is one of resilience, dedication, and a deep love for both her country and the enduring legacy of her Navajo roots.

"It fills me with pride and joy knowing that my heritage is acknowledged," she smiles. "It shows that we are not forgotten."