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,
"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
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. …