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Ira Hayes, an American hero

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When American Indians were fighting to keep their homelands, Ira Hayes was fighting for America.

Adam Beach, a Canadian actor of Saulteaux decent, plays the role of Ira Hayes in “Flags of our Fathers,” the Clint Eastwood movie that tells the true story of the men captured in the infamous World War II Associate Press photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima.

“What I thought about Ira Hayes was that he was a man of great respect,” Beach said. “He never saw himself above others. He was a man of few words and when he said something it came from his heart, so it meant more than you can imagine.”

The movie, which is based on the 1990 book of the same title by James Bradley, uncovered the story of the three men who survived the battle of Iwo Jima and their lives after the fame of one of the most well-known photographs in American history.

“Ira had a strong spirit because he had to harness so much pain and anguish through the horrors of war,” Beach said. “He did not reflect that onto anyone else with anger and resentment, he kept it within himself as an inner turmoil.”

Eventually, suppressing his pain and anguish was his downfall, Beach said. On Jan. 24, 1955, at the age of 32, Hayes was found dead near an abandoned hut near his home on the Gila River Indian Reservation. His death was determined to be due to exposure and too much alcohol.

Alcoholism has long plagued American Indian communities, and Beach said that there is a reason why American Indians turn to the bottle.

“You can’t help but to reflect why they are doing it,” Beach said about alcoholism. “If you look at the history of our people it’s full of tragedy, it’s always been a struggle to maintain our … identity.”

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Beach said American Indians are in a generation of rebirth and he wants to educate the public to gain awareness of American Indian issues.

“The 1980s was the last residential schooling in Canada and you have to look at all that history,” he said. “I teach people about the boarding schools and how in over the last 100 years, they’ve been inflecting the idea of let’s rid [American Indians] of their identity, of their Indian languages.”

From this history, Beach said American Indians and the indigenous in Canada are scarred.

“When I see a fellow brother who is on the street and he is an alcoholic I look at him as a human being who has been scarred. I don’t look at him as a statistic,” Beach said. “And Ira Hayes in this movie represents that individual, that scarred person; but he brings out the human being quality that people need to see.”

Although American Indians and the indigenous in Canada have had a history of turmoil, Beach said there has been change in Indian country over the past two decades.

“We are finding our spirit and excelling,” Beach said. “This is how we are supposed to see ourselves – as successful people, not as a tragic identity. It’s unfortunate that our past represents that, but here we have the opportunity to change that. And I think we will. We are abandoning the idea of playing victims. We are abandoning the idea of surviving because we’ve got our strength back.”

During the movie, the character of Ira Hayes goes through a rollercoaster of emotions, from happiness with his friends in the Marines, to anger and sadness. Beach said that the real Hayes never thought of himself as a hero, but he was.

“He stood for what America stands for: freedom,” Beach said. “He was a true American hero.”