There’s a difference between knowing you need help and knowing where to find it. To assist in closing that gap for Native veterans in Southern Arizona, there’s the annual Gathering of American Indian Veterans, established in 2007, because many Native veterans were unaware of benefit options they had earned by their military service.
According to Wanda Wright, an Air Force Veteran and now Director of the Arizona Department of Veteran’s Services who addressed the 10th annual gathering at the end of March, “For more than 200 years, Native warriors have participated with distinction in U.S. military action – with courage, determination, and a fighting spirit – and for far too long, and for too many reasons, those same veterans have often been invisible after their service.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “Native Americans serve at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, are generally younger than other service members, and have served in more recent conflicts.”
The Vets 4 Veterans web page notes: “Native Americans have distinctive cultural values which drive them to serve their country – the proud warrior tradition – exemplified by qualities said to be inherent in Native American societies – strength, honor, pride, devotion, and wisdom – qualities that make a perfect fit with military tradition.”
“Those are the people we’re trying to reach,” says Michael Spotted Wolf (Seminole/Creek/Hidatsa) of the Tucson Indian Center, an Air Force veteran and Master of Ceremonies at the Gathering of American Indian Veterans held at the Pascua Yaqui Casino del Sol.
The Coalition for American Indian Veterans of Southern Arizona works in partnership to provide awareness, assistance and outreach services regarding benefit eligibility for veterans and their families. “The Coalition also provides a means to generate a networking forum for these proud Native warriors in Southern Arizona,” Spotted Wolf says. “The driving force behind hosting this annual event is a desire to help Indian veterans learn about and access the benefits they have earned, particularly the younger veterans from more recent military service, and especially the ones that have been involved in combat.”
Attendees had a chance for one-on-one discussions with representatives from many of the agencies that provide veterans benefits. And while the day was intended as educational and informative, it was also a fun day for the vendors who showed up to display their wares.
Dolores Martinez of Pillows Plus (Taos Pueblo) spends her workweek making sure things are spic and span for Army medical personnel at Fort Huachuca, then promotes her pillows for veterans at conferences like this one. Former Marine Ivan Arkadie (Apache) offered T-shirts for sale like this one: “God and the U.S. Marines have a contract. It’s God’s job to judge terrorists. It’s our mission to arrange that meeting.”
The most popular attraction (aside from the complimentary buffet lunch provided by the Pascua Yaqui tribe) ended up being Air Force Veteran Kathryn Twinfeathers and her Flutes for Vets booth. “What if there was something that could help vets soothe their internal chaos and give them a sense of peace,” she asked as she introduced musical neophytes to her 5-note music makers.
A flute instructor for more than 15 years, she has launched a non-profit Flutes for Vets program aimed at providing free flutes and classes to veterans interested in trying something new, especially former military men and women with a diagnosis of PTSD, mental health, or addiction issues.
“I’ve conducted meditation circles with flutes at the VA and found these simple instruments to be conveyors of peace and calming,” she said. “The pentatonic scale is so simple that anybody with workable fingers and a bit of breath can learn. And while there is a correct way to play a flute, mistakes can be included in your song. It’s what is in your ear and what your heart is tuned to. I just pick up the energy in the room and away I go.”
Although in its fledgling stage, Twinfeathers believes, “This could be a nationwide, even a worldwide, program perhaps in conjunction with the Vets for Peace effort. Flutes would fit nicely into that program.”
Even as the Gathering of American Indian Veterans was taking place in one part of Tucson, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva was in another part of town addressing an American Legion veteran’s forum. “Military members and their families sacrifice so much in service to our country (and) upholding our commitments to veterans in return is the bare minimum our society can do,” he told his group. “Taking care of our nation’s 22 million veterans should be one of our highest priorities.”
As Pascua Yaqui Chairman Robert Valencia noted in his welcome address to Native veterans – “We used to hold overnight ceremonies for our returning vets, thanking the Creator and welcoming them back safe and sound, and we have a commitment to today’s young vets to also help them return to their homes and take advantage of the benefits they have earned.”