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Walking on the Sky

Native American and Alaska Native Veteran Captain Lee Wilkerson recalls a dream he had telling him to start a National Guard Unit of Native Americans. Wilkerson believed to be the first Alaska Native Air Force fighter pilot, hopes to help Natives rediscover their roots as warriors with their own military division.

Captain Lee Wilkerson, who flies a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker for the United States Air Force, had the same vivid dream three times:

I saw a great American eagle—it was pure white. Its wings were seven feet wide, and it was powerful. It came down from the heavens and flew across America, just like my jet flies across America. I looked down and I saw many braves. They wore traditional buckskins and feathers, and they were lying in the dust all the way from the east coast to Alaska, as if they were dead.

Then I saw the eagle land by these Indians, and he touched them, and they started to come alive. They started grouping together, and they became powerful, and full of life and energy. One of them, who wore many feathers, had a spear with two eagle feathers attached to it with buckskin. He threw the spear in the air and I reached out and grabbed it, and all of these braves were grabbing the American flag and lifting it up as if they were going to battle for the United States.

And then I woke up.

Wilkerson is now working to make that dream come true.

Lee Wilkerson was born in Provo, Utah in 1973. He gets his Native American heritage from his mother, who is Tsimshiam, Haida, and Tlingit. When he was five years old he came face to face with racism. “My brother and I went to a swimming pool there in the neighborhood, and at that time we didn’t even realize we were Indian,” Wilkerson says. “The kids in the neighborhood told us we couldn’t swim in the pool because our skin was brown; I remember it to this day. We told our mother and she said ‘You guys are Indian.’ At that point in our life, to be honest, we thought it was bad to be in Indian.”

Shortly thereafter his family moved to British Columba and he saw how poorly Native people were treated there. He says he and his brother tried their best to be “white.”

It wasn’t until he was out of high school that his attitude toward his heritage changed. While attending Brigham Young University he signed up for a 24-month mission to proselytize for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was sent to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada to work with the Shoshone tribe. It was while working with Shoshone youth that he finally got to know and love Indian people. It started with a swimming lesson.

“I usually instructed five to ten kids, but the whole shallow end of this Olympic-sized pool was filled with a hundred Indian kids one day,” Wilkerson recalls. “I taught them all how to swim, and as I taught them I began to love them. From that point forward I was proud to be an Indian, and I knew that they were my people.

“When I was out with the Shoshones, in the fall of 1994, one of the old hereditary chiefs told me; ‘One day the eagle will come to you.’ At the time I was very respectful, but in my mind I was laughing. I was thinking, ‘This is just Indian talk.’ I thought, This man has been in the sweat lodge too long.”

This was long before the eagle came to his dreams.

Wilkerson has been fascinated with aircraft since he was a child. A neighbor in British Columbia was a hunting guide who owned a Piper PA-18 Super Cub on floats, and he would give Wilkerson and his brother rides on that tiny plane when they were children. From that point on, Wilkerson knew he wanted to be an Air Force pilot. His great grandfather’s name was “Walking on the Sky” and Wilkerson says always wanted to bring honor to his great-grandfather’s name, so after returning from his Mormon mission and getting his Master’s degree in engineering at BYU, he went into the undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma and became a pilot in the United States Air Force. He has flown in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pacific theaters and many other places around the world.

It was the spring of 2009 when he returned home to Alaska from a deployment in the Middle East that he first had his dream. He immediately thought back to the old Shoshone chief’s words. He believes his dream was a message that he needs to work hard to recruit more Native people into the Air Force. He contacted his military leaders about this idea and his plan for achieving that goal made it to the top military brass in Alaska and (then Governor) Sarah Palin’s desk.

In a letter Wilkerson has sent to the Alaska Federation of Natives and the NCAI about his vision, he wrote that after two years of contemplation he believes his dream means that Native people must return to honor and accept the ways of their heritage. “What I mean by returning to honor is remembering our past and our elders and ancestors who have paid a price to bring us to this point,” Wilkerson says.

Wilkerson says an elder from the Nez Perce gave him his interpretation of part of the dream—he suggested that the two eagle feathers on the spear represent being a warrior under two flags; that of the U.S. and of the Native nation. Because of this interpretation, Wilkerson now feels that we need a new generation of warriors, and so he is attempting to put together a National Guard unit of Native Americans.

In order to bring attention to this project, Wilkerson and his brother are planning to make a Haida canoe and take it down the inside passage from Juneau, Alaska to Squaxin village, near Olympia, Washington, in July of 2012. He is inviting two Native warriors from each tribe in the nation to be a part of the journey, and is hoping a Coast Guard boat will follow this canoe flotilla to provide moral and tactical support. “I’m going to every Indian nation in America to tell them about this, and then I’m going to build a canoe to show that I still believe in our traditional ways and that I honor them” he says. “I’m not talking to the Army yet—I’m talking to every tribe in American, asking for their support.” Wilkerson says he needs to raise $360,000 for the project.

The canoe Wilkerson is planning to build with his brother, Nathaniel Wilkerson, will be a traditional Haida canoe, 61-feet long, made from one tree. He expects that the carving and decoration of the craft will take them six months. The 850-mile trip will take a month to complete with stops at every Native American village along the way. He is also planning to make a film about the journey.

“We are asking every tribe in the country to meet us when we arrive and to support us, and to have letters ready in hand that we can give to the President of the United States to ask for a warrior program for our people.”

Wilkerson invites people to contact him at P.O. Box 1296, Davenport, WA, 99122, or by phone at 509-721-0155.