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Regarding Peter d'Errico's Column on American Flags at Pow Wows

ICTMN columnist, Peter d'Errico, addressed the issues of American flags at pow wows, and the meaning of “warrior” as opposed to “soldier” in his column, "U.S. Military History, Pow Wow Flags, Freedom and Fears." He asks, “What does the U.S. flag mean at an Indian pow wow? How is it that warriors who defend Indian territory are mixed up with soldiers who fight for the United States?” His column raises a number of questions about Native patriotism and the Unites States military.

The first pow wow I attended was in 1966 in Fort Kipp, Montana (Assiniboine-Sioux Tribes). I was a Vista Volunteer and had been invited to attend the pow wow (someone later told me it was a 49er dance). This was the home of the Fort Kipp Singers, a well known group in Indian Country at that time.

The singing and drumming were intense by the time I got there, and the dancing was well under way. High on a pole, waving and snapping in the wind, was the American flag. The American flag, I wondered, what was it doing here? I would later tell this story to my non-Indian friends back in California and they were generally incredulous. Why would Native peoples honor the American flag, the symbol of genocide and oppression? I would later learn that the lack of a clear answer to this question was only the first instance of irony I would encounter in Indian country.

Peter d’Errico doesn’t appear to recognize any irony in defining the deference between Indian warriors and Indian soldiers. (Is there a need to make such a distinction?) He offers his own straight up analysis, aided by a report from the United States Army. He states that, “Warriors fight for individual honor while soldiers fight for unit effectiveness." His definition isn’t explored to any greater extent than to again refer to the U.S. Army’s Soldier’s Creed.

A few years ago I was talking with an O’odham member of the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix. I asked about Ira Hayes, the famous WWII Marine from Gila River. I noted that there was an American Legion post named after Ira in the Community.

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His attitude changed and became emphatic. “That is not the Indian way,” he said. He explained to me that the traditional O’odham culture would not award individuals with the kind of distinction that had been given to Ira Hayes in this instance. It may have been just his opinion, but I use the story to further my belief that many people in Indian communities may not be comfortable with the term “individual honor” when Western individualism is not a traditional community value. After all, exaggerated individualism is one of the pronounced characteristics of Western culture, and is strongly associated with colonialism. Indian warriors may have been more interested in fighting for their families and communities, not individual honor. I can mention Crazy Horse who lived with great humility.

Many non-Indians frequently misunderstand the importance of military veterans to the Indian community. A year or two ago I visited Himdag-Ki, the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum. It is located several miles outside of Tucson, Arizona, and not easy for tourists to visit. The Center is for the use of the community and the museum’s exhibits were planned with community input, organized by community committees, not curators. At the time of my visit, shortly after the grand opening, the largest exhibit was a tribute to the memory of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s military veterans. There were old military uniforms on display in addition to a variety of medals – family mementos, of course, but now on display for the community, not tourists. They were exhibits of pride.

Peter d’Errico began his column with a concern about the American flag and pow wows. Why was the flag there? He concludes, “I finally arrived at my own answer to my question when I walked away from the pow wow grounds and looked back. There, I saw not only the big flags but also dozens of tiny stars and stripes atop poles around the perimeter. I suddenly had a flash of recognition: This was the scene of an old Indian encampment trying to protect itself from army attack. Perhaps the flags are a sign of fear, rather than patriotism.” (Emphasis added.)

I am not in a position to fully address patriotism and U.S. military veterans in Indian country. But I do believe that the characterization of pow wows as places of fear further paints a picture of Native peoples in this country as submissive and defeated. I’m sure that was not Mr. d’Errico’s intent, but a sure implication of his statement. Further, portraying Native warriors as individuals who solely seek personal honor is not consistent with my reading of Indian history and my experience living in Indian communities. Pow wows can be significant places of healing and homecoming for Native veterans, a place to gain recognition for individual sacrifice and bravery, without necessarily supporting the American political agenda.

Lori Piestewa was not only a warrior, but also a soldier, fighting for unit effectiveness.

DuWayne Smith is retired from the U.S. Department of Labor where he was a manager of disability and rehabilitation programs. He was a Vista Volunteer and teacher in Native communities during the 1960s and early 1970s, received an M.Ed. in Indian Education from Arizona State University in 1968, and continues to have an interest in Indian country.