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PBS documentary depicts bravery of Native veterans

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ARLINGTON, Va. - ''Way of the Warrior'' examines the visceral nature of war and the bravery of American Indian veterans who served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War - and came to grips with difficult post-war personal and societal conditions. The documentary airs Nov. 1 on PBS.

Through firsthand interviews and accounts from comrades and loved ones, the stories are told against the backdrop of positive and negative themes familiar to Native people - the warrior ethic, prejudice, forced assimilation, poverty, cultural pride and redemptive acts and healing.

The program honors the endurance and sacrifice of individuals such as Mitchell Red Cloud, Ho-Chunk, a Medal of Honor recipient; Ira Hayes, Pima, one of the flag-raisers on Iwo Jima; Phil Coon, Creek, a Bataan Death March survivor; and John Yahola, Creek, a member of the Red Stick Warrior Society. Their stories are examined through the prism of what it means to be ogichidaa, one who protects and follows the way of the warrior.

The gripping and horrifying nature of war is brought home through dramatic historical footage, period photographs and sound effects. These are juxtaposed with photos of veterans in more genial settings, away from combat with family and friends stateside, creating a portrait of not just the warrior, but the paradox of a warrior's motivations.

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Producer Patty Loew said she always had an interest in learning about why her grandfather, an Ojibwe, volunteered to fight in WWI when he was not a U.S. citizen.

That was a central question for many of the veterans she interviewed or researched for this project. Some said they fought because of clan obligations. Others were driven by patriotism toward the United States. Still others said it was a way to prove themselves as warriors and keep tribal traditions alive.

The documentary explores what it was like to be an Indian soldier, noting that American Indians often were singled out for the most dangerous assignments due to the ascribed stereotypes of possessing an innate sense of direction or superior hearing and eyesight. As a result, Natives often suffered higher injury and casualty rates. One example was the Red Arrow Division in WWI. The unit, which held a high proportion of Native soldiers, lost nearly 60 percent of its force.

''Way of the Warrior'' also looks at the experiences of women who served on the home front during WWII. When the war ended, returning white soldiers displaced those women - and Native men as well.

The war's end brought many changes, said Arizona State University professor Donald Fixico, Seminole/Creek. Change occurred in technologies, national leadership and the geography of the world. ''But the [change that] didn't occur was a change in attitudes. Indians were still outside of the American mainstream.''