Native Americans Enlist for Turf and Tribe

By Miller, Jennifer | The Christian Science Monitor, August 2, 2007 | Go to article overview

Native Americans Enlist for Turf and Tribe


Miller, Jennifer, The Christian Science Monitor


In a grassy clearing amid the dusty hills here, Donovan Nez bends over a bubbling spring. Mr. Nez, 26, is a Navajo Indian and a former marine. Though he wears his dark hair cropped in a military cut, he looks very much the civilian on this Sunday afternoon. He balances on a fallen log, turning every so often to flash a boyish smile at his younger cousins who cluster behind him on the bank.

"When you drink this water," says Nez, "it seeps into every crevice of your body. It rejuvenates you."

Nez turns back to the water at the site known as Swiffle Spring, located on the Navajo Indian reservation just below the Chuksa mountains here, and bows his head. He whispers a prayer in Navajo, then English.

"Mother Earth, ease our physical and mental burdens. Thank you for all you have given us. For safety and strength. For this sacred water." He places his hands in the spring.

When Nez thanks Mother Earth for protection, he often has something specific in mind - namely Iraq, where he served two tours with the US Marines.

Nez believes his faith and traditions helped bring him back safely from the war. More than that, they help explain why he and other native Americans enlist in the military in such large numbers - even though many resent the way the US government has treated their people over the centuries.

They feel an unusual obligation to protect the tribal communities they belong to and, more specifically, the land they've inhabited for generations. The result is that native Americans tend to join the service at higher per capita rates than almost any other minority group.

According to the Pentagon, they represent less than 1 percent of the population, but makeup about 1.6 percent of the armed forces. In some tribal communities, 1 out of every 200 adults have served in the military. Currently, nearly 20,000 native American and Alaskan native people are in uniform.

* * *

One reason for the high participation rates, to be sure, are the career and economic benefits. "The military is seen as an opportunity," says Mark St. Pierre, an historian who has lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for 35 years. His book, "Of Uncommon Birth: Dakota sons in Vietnam," follows native Americans who fought in Southeast Asia. He estimates that nearly 50 percent of males on the reservation have served in the military. "People on this reservation realize they will get VA benefits," he says, "that they might go to college."

The same is true of the Navajo reservation, which sprawls across 27,000 square miles of northern Arizona and extends into Utah and New Mexico. Some 43 percent of the reservation's 180,000 residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment stands at 42 percent. Nearly 32 percent of homes lack full plumbing. Nez grew up in a cramped trailer. As the oldest of four children, he never had a bed, but slept on the floor or couch.

Yet the cultural motivations for military service run deep among native Americans, too - and set them apart from many other minority groups. A sense of tribal duty is often a primary motivator.

"In a tribal society, social status and approval are important," says Mr. St. Pierre. "If a man's not a veteran, he's going to be less. It's ingrained in the culture."

He and others talk about the "warrior culture" that is so pervasive among native Americans. But this ethos isn't about blind violence. St. Pierre notes that native American tribes have a history of "turf wars" - those fought over land, hunting rights, trade routes, and water access. "For the most part," he says, "American Indians did not fight wars of annihilation."

Nez says the mentality of fighting is "in our blood. It's natural to fight for the cause you believe in." But when he speaks about manliness and strength, he also lists sacrifice and unselfishness as fundamental warrior traits.

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