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Native Currents: In commemoration

As one of the last surviving Maine Indian combat veterans who served our country in the second World War, I was grateful for the opportunity to witness Gov. Baldacci signing legislation formally establishing Native American Veterans Day in Maine.

Now almost 85 years old, I am a tribal elder of the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine. We are one of four tribes in our state. Together with our brothers and sisters of the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq we are allied nations in the Wabanaki Confederacy. Since the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, our people have stood shoulder to shoulder with Americans and Canadians in many wars, fighting a common enemy.

During the past century, a few dozen Wabanakis from Maine served in World War I; and about 200 of our people volunteered or were drafted into the military during World War II. Many later served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.

As a veteran of WWII and the Korean War, I am not unique. My personal story has become quite well known over the past few years because I agreed to step forward in the hope of drawing attention to our forgotten history, soldiers and sacrifices.

I was baptized by fire on bloody Omaha, June 6, 1944. On that same day, now remembered as D-Day, there were hundreds of North American Indian warriors storming German fortifications in French Normandy. Among them were another Penobscot, and also a Passamaquoddy. Both young Indian men came ashore hours after me on Omaha Beach. Meanwhile, a few Maliseet and Mi’kmaq soldiers landed on nearby Juno Beach.

At least three of these brave hearted Wabanakis were killed within the next few days of heavy fighting, including one who was first captured and then executed by the SS. Their stories have not been told, and their names and the sacrifices they made have not been remembered.

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Many more were wounded and some captured. While a good number of us were decorated with purple hearts, bronze and silver stars, when we came back to our reservations, we did not talk about our experiences. We were not asked. And so we forgot, and our country forgot – a forgetting that has become tradition.

Now, nearly 65 years have passed since WWII ended. Almost all of the Maine Indian veterans from my generation have now passed away, including my three brothers. Those of us still alive have few memories of that war.

As a combat medic who served in the Korean War as well as WWII, I know that bullets and shrapnel do not distinguish between soldiers of different racial, national, ethnic or religious heritage. But, I know that not all those who served and sacrificed have been, or are, treated equally. Nor are our contributions as veterans, regardless of battlefield honors, always equally remembered.

I am grateful that our state is living up to its motto – Dirigo: I lead – and is now the first state in the Union to formally mark a Native American Veterans Day. We have chosen June 21 as the date for this commemoration because it was on that day in 1775 that our Wabanaki ancestors joined the American Revolution. From now on, this day will provide us with the opportunity to remind the general public, as well as our own Native communities, about Native American contributions and sacrifices to the spirit of freedom, and to honor those who have served or are now serving our country.

I am honored and grateful for this opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings about this landmark legislation. I offer these comments in memory of so many comrades who have passed away or cannot be here because of old age, poor health, or other personal reasons. I trust they are with us in spirit.

Charles Norman Shay is a Penobscot tribal elder and a decorated World War II veteran.