This year’s Native Nations Inaugural Ball focused less on celebrating the election of a new president and more on honoring Native American military members and veterans.
The event’s venue was the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. where a crowd of several hundred largely indigenous people came together on the evening of January 20 to relish good cuisine, energizing entertainment and enlivening cultural presentations related to the museum’s new Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation's Armed Forces exhibit.
While some dressed in long sequined dresses and danced with men adorned in crisp tuxes, others wore military dress or tribal ceremonial garb and hopped to Native drums.
Heavily underwritten by a host of sponsors, the evening kicked off with ceremonies recognizing the role of the Native American community in the United States military.
Kevin Gover, the Pawnee director of the NMAI, noted that with the exception of the Navajo Code Talkers, few Americans are aware of the contribution that American Indians and Alaska Natives have made to the nation's armed services. As of May 2016, more than 22,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives were active duty military, 150,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives were veterans, and there have been 27 Native American Medal of Honor recipients. Moreover, at 1.7 percent, Indians comprise the highest per-capita enlistment of any self-identifying population in the United States military.
In between tastes of smoked diver scallops and champagne, attendees offered their thoughts on the importance of Native military service, as well as the state of Indian country today.
A U.S. Army colonel from the Cherokee nation now in his 30th year of service was attending the ball with his daughter on a "daughter date, daddy dance,"—a tradition in their family. Raised in Arizona, he enlisted directly from high school, but took advantage of the ROTC program to get his degree. Most important to him is to honor those Native Americans that have served in our defense and their families who have made what he called the "real sacrifices."
"We serve because it's our land, and we are chartered to protect our country,” he said. “I came into the service because I believe in what we do as a country."
Two other retired Marine attendees, one from the Kickapoo Nation and the other from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, discussed their military experiences. Both served for eight years in very different roles and are now working for Bureau of Indian Affairs. When asked how their fellow service members perceived them once they knew they were indigenous, one stated that a lot of them thought that Indians still rode horses and killed buffalo.
Asked their impression as to how the last few presidential administrations had treated Indian country, one said there was much room for improvement. "I have an opinion on both sides,” he said. “Native American voices have been muffled for too long. Sometimes we just kind of accept things as they are rather than try to be aggressive and move against the grain. And the government in my opinion will try to move further and further into our area, and sometimes we don't realize it, or sometimes we just tolerate it. It's almost like somebody's just pushing the edge, pushing the edge, pushing the edge. So I think we need to be more proactive about it. I think we definitely need to take it head on."
A Choctaw female sergeant, recently retired and still living in Oklahoma and currently working for her tribe as a housekeeper, shared her experience as a member of a relatively new Native organization known as the Water Protectors. Formerly called Veterans Standing for Standing Rock, these 2,000 former military members stood in the gap between tribal activists and deployed troops at the Dakota Access Pipeline. They formed Water Protectors upon their return, a mission-minded and apolitical association, selecting only missions consistent with their charter. Their last mission was Operation Sacred Horse at Standing Rock where they built stables for the horses and living quarters for their caretaker, and they are now taking requests from a number of Indian camps to protect tribal and sacred land at several pipeline sites being constructed in Indian country.
Near the end of the evening, Roy Hawthorne, of the Red House Clan of the Navajo, one of 13 Navajo Code Talkers still alive at age 91, shared his thoughts on how to strengthen Indian country.
"We don't want the government to be just handing out things, but we want those to learn how to earn," Hawthorne said. Involved in education since his military days, he would like to establish a unique school system for children of all ages that teaches both knowledge and Native wisdom—a modern take on an ancient concept.
"What will happen to the little ones?” Hawthorne asked. “Under the present school system, they'll be forgotten. They'll have no chance to achieve." He said his military experience showed him that Indians can accomplish whatever they want.
As the music transitioned from Dark Water Rising to individual artists, attendees began to trickle out the door in search of a ride home. Even the rain-soaked streets and the half-mile walk back to the Metro could not break the spell cast by an evening of unity and camaraderie in support of Native veterans.