American Indian veterans honored annually at Arlington National Cemetery
Washington D.C. – In a sacred pipe ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery, American Indians paid tribute to native veterans past and present.
Nathan Phillips, Omaha, keeper of the pipe, holds the ceremony annually on the Sunday after Veterans’ Day.
Phillips opened the ceremony with a call on a conch shell and asked the group to gather together. Phillips is the former director of the Native Youth Alliance and now oversees their Heritage of Healing Project. Phillips, as the keeper of the pipe for the ceremony, has attended the event for the past 15 years.
The drum group, Nama-wo-chi, which translates “Native Man, Woman and child,” had traveled from North Carolina to Arlington, Va. to perform. They began with a calling song to honor “all of the veterans for all wars.”
After giving offerings of sage, Sweetgrass, tobacco and food to the spirits and ancestors, Phillips asked if any of the crowd of about 30 people would like to share. Many came forward to express memories of past Native veterans and concerns about soldiers currently serving in Iraq and those being deployed.
Nathan Phillips, Omaha, keeper of the pipe, holds the ceremony annually on the Sunday after Veterans’ Day. Photo Vincent Schilling
Mitchell Bush spoke of the late Dick Baker, a Native veteran that had attended the event until his recent passing. Baker and Bush had both attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas.
Bush mentioned that Baker, a Marine Corps veteran, was responsible for the “Grandfather Plaque” at the center of the ceremonies, which pays tribute to Indian Vietnam veterans. “Baker was there when they dedicated the Vietnam Wall, he had this plaque dedicated to the Indian warriors,” Bush said.
Bush also pointed out that the site of the ceremony held the grave marker of U.S. Army LTC Carl Phillip Thorpe, son of Olympic Champion and legendary athlete Jim Thorpe.
Melvin Moore also stepped up to speak and proudly asserted that his ancestry included a list of veterans that had served in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam and Korean Wars. “We can be proud of who we are today. Every day I will wear my regalia to let people know we are still here and we do not have to take a back seat.”
Others expressed various encouraging thoughts such as, “Not lose sight of who you are,” and “I am proud to be who I am today.”
When all had a chance to speak and share their feelings, Nama-wo-chi, expressed gratitude to Nathan Phillips. They presented Phillips “the highest honor that can be bestowed to an American Indian” and gave him two eagle feathers for 15 years of conducting the sacred pipe ceremony to honor veterans.
Phillips was visibly moved by the gesture and spoke to the crowd. “I am humbled here today. My wife, who has bone marrow cancer, would have liked to see this. She is the one who deserves this. For 18 years, she has been standing beside me. I miss her here today.”
In tears, Phillips explained that he had literally dropped off his wife at the emergency room days before the ceremony. He had expressed to her that he wanted to stay with her, be she told him to go and conduct the ceremony.
Phillips also described coming back to the U.S. as a veteran of the Vietnam era. “People called me a baby killer and a hippie girl spit on me.”
The entire crowd was moved by the events and words spoken. Phillips then led the gathering in the lighting and partaking of the sacred pipe.
In closing, Nama-wo-chi played a veterans song and Mary Phillips, Omaha/Laguna, played “Taps” on the trumpet.
Julia Eagle and her husband Crow are members of Nama-wo-chi. The two who have been recently married also took time to express their thoughts. “We were not allowed to be Cherokee as a child. It is important not to forget your roots and to treat everyone with kindness and love.”
Alicia Moore, “Spirit Tree” also spoke about the day’s events. “This has been a long time coming. It should be done more often, but I am glad it is happening now. Our people have lain silent. We drummed to raise up the spirits to let our ancestors know that they are not forgotten.”
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling
Note: This article has been corrected from its original version to reflect that Nathan Phillips was a Vietnam-era veteran and that he said he was spit on while in uniform as opposed to when he was returning from combat.
Nathan Phillips did not serve in the Vietnam war. The correction was made in 2019 from an article published in 2008.