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Fallen sister soldier is symbol of our common pain

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Our strongest condolences to the family of Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz. The tragic yet heroic and honorable circumstances of Pfc. Piestewa's death in combat moved Indian country and all of America to mourn with the Piestewa family and the Hopi people. Many have followed her fate avidly and developed a great sympathy and heartfelt connection to the young and steadfast mother of two. Lori Ann Piestewa honored well a family tradition of military service to her tribal nation and her American country.

We take this opportunity to honor all warriors - American Indians - both men and women, who have held up a long tradition of military service in America. The Native tradition of military service is rooted in the commitment to serve the cause of "freedom." While this sentiment has spread to all Americans and runs full in the vein of the American soul, the call to defend "our own free country" runs particularly deep in the Native community.

Whether in agreement or disagreement on particular issues and politics, America must be proud of its Indian soldiers; it should celebrate not only their sacrifice but their living contribution to the motivation and fervor for freedom in the American people at large.

The freedom America sings about came at a high price for American Indian tribes. The turbulent colonial years saw the forced dispossession of many. It was, and in some cases continues to be, a contentious history. American Indians, who had freedom in their hand, lost a big piece of what was natural and self-determined, yet even while under duress, transferred the value and the knowledge of it to their new immigrant brethren. The freedom to council, the freedom of movement, the freedom to disagree with and even admonish or remove political leaders, the freedom of trade and commerce, the freedom of fundamental rights of religious expression - these were all present in Native America at the time of first contact with Europeans.

The very existence of Indian peoples created the political personality of what would become, "the American." It is a little-known fact that prior to U.S. independence, the proper subject for the term "American" was the Indian. The colonist became American in the footsteps of the Indian. He fought like the Indian and in many ways took on the values of the Indian - not only as a people, but deep in the psyche - which is the origin of an emerging American rectitude: that fundamental consciousness that seeks to make things right with the tribes.

While early American Indian military movements began necessarily as antagonistic to United States armies, and nearly every tribe has a heroic record of defensive warfare against the United States (or England, Spain and France) - as Native peoples settled reservation territories and as an additional American citizenship was granted by the new nation-state that sought jurisdiction over Native ancestral lands, American Indians have consistently fought honorably for the righteous causes of the United States. Native peoples have carried their ancestral sense of obligation to defend freedom of their own peoples and lands onto their commitment to serve and fight the enemy with the U.S. military. This has full and actually mystical fusion: When America says "Freedom;" primordially, it is the American Indian saying "Freedom."

Native American women have served in the military since World War I, when 14 served as members of the Army Nurse Corps. Nearly 800 Native American women served in the military during World War II. Many Native American women saw service during the Korean War and Vietnam War, however the exact number has not been documented. Two Native American women previously lost their lives in the armed services: Terri Ann Hagan in 1994 and Katherine Mathews in 1985. As of 1994, 1,509 Native American women were serving in the military forces of the United States.

During World War II some 99 percent of eligible healthy American Indian males ages 21 to 44, registered for the draft. Ten percent of the eligible American Indian population served during these years. As many as 70 percent of the eligible population served from some tribes. By the end of World War II, 24,521 reservation Indians and 20,000 from off reservation had served. Six American Indian men received the Medal of Honor in World War II. The commitment and sense of "fighting for freedom" is high for American Indian veterans. (Thanks to NCAI for information).

If good finally would manifest from this painful war in Iraq, it would have to be that the world will help a people emerge into a semblance of freedom. The tradition of the United States military has been to see itself as a liberating force, a force to defend and stand for the value of freedom.

There is fierce difference of opinion as to the lived reality of this ideal, but the ideal is nevertheless expressed and believed. Americans must always stand for freedom. Freedom is not an abstract concept. It is a hugely important value to commit to - even as many will certainly disagree about how that is to be accomplished in the real world.

As American Indian peoples have come to contribute their service to the United States - in the commitment to fighting for a free Indian country, for a free land, for freedom - so too we hope for America a continuing dedication to the value of freedom as it attempts to "rebuild" Iraq and lead the world.

We thank all our American Indian soldiers for their steadfastness in the face of duty and sacrifice. Iraq, situated at the crossways of the world with its politics layered in tribal complexity, is today's battleground for hearts and souls. May our intentions be clear, and, on the side of good. The memory of all our loved ones who gave themselves to the cause of freedom will thus be always honored.