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Warriors honoring warriors

Cultural diversity groups gather

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE S.D. - American Indian warriors, past and present,
were honored by the warriors currently wearing the Air Force uniform as
part of American Indian Heritage month.

A gathering of two cultural committees, the Multicultural Awareness
Committee of Ellsworth Air Force Base played host to the Rapid City
Cultural Diversity committee, the event was to honor American Indians and
the contributions they have made to the country.

Base Commander Lt. Col. Joseph Brown said the warrior culture of the
American Indian was important to the mission of Ellsworth Air Force Base
and to the U.S. Military. He said 11 percent of the military today is from
the American Indian community. Eighteen American Indians are stationed at
Ellsworth.

"The warrior culture continues today," Col. Brown said.

His remarks were an introduction to Gerard Baker, superintendent of Mount
Rushmore National Monument. Baker is Hidatsa-Mandan from Fort Berthold in
North Dakota.

"We are all warriors, both men and women," Baker said. Baker, sought
frequently as a speaker is a warrior and he never misses an opportunity to
tell the story of his people to anyone who will listen. He corrects
misconceptions about American Indians and tells the stories passed down as
a means to educate. He said he was a proud member of the modern AIM
movement.

Baker was most recently the coordinator for the Lewis and Clark
Bicentennial events for the National Park Service. He was the
superintendent of the Little Big Horn Battlefield in Montana. Under his
leadership the American Indian Memorial, now a reality at the battlefield,
took on a life. He has been with the National Park Service for 24 years and
three years with the National Forest Service.

A large crowd of mostly officers at Ellsworth Air Force Base attended the
gathering to hear Baker. His message dispelled many myths about American
Indian and he relayed many stories showing the conflict between the
cultures and the teachings by which his family lived.

"We are losing who we are as a culture. Our grandfathers and grandmothers
were so intent on keeping the culture, if it were not for them I wouldn't
speak the language."

Baker said only one Mandan elder that speaks the language is alive today.

He said his parents, "caught hell" for being Indian; "now it's cool to be
Indian, but it wasn't when I grew up."

Baker grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota on a ranch.
His father, he said, was respected as a rancher, a tribal judge and a
counselor. He tells the story of what was a typical American Indian home
with family, friends and elders coming to his home to talk.

He said as a child he learned to listen to the elders and from that he
learned respect.

"When the elders talked we listened. We heard about old-time traditions."
Baker added that he wished he could have lived in the times of which the
elders spoke.

"When the old guys came they made me sit by them. They had knives and
medicine pouches. If we weren't listening they would show us the knives and
say, since we weren't listening we didn't need our ears.

"I was fortunate to be raised as traditional as possible."

He was raised in a home with no running water, the living room was a
bedroom and there was no phone. There are American Indian people who live
in homes on reservations in different parts of the country that can say the
same about their living conditions today.

"Every tribe is different, the bands are different and the societies tried
to make us live better. The military came in and said we were wearing war
paint. Everybody was marked according to their society. The markings were
also worn in war."

Previous contacts with the non-Indian world were also catastrophic to the
Mandan and Hidatsa, the deadly small pox was brought up the Missouri River
by boat, the St. Pierre. The capitol city of South Dakota is named Pierre.
It was in that vicinity the Mandan and Hidatsa made contact.

Baker said there are two stories about the small pox. Two crew members of
the boat had died from the disease and the blankets they wore were kept on
board the vessel. He said the United States' theory of what happened
accused the American Indian women of stealing the blankets when they came
on board.

"The Indian version is that the white men knew the blankets were infected
and they gave them out as gifts."

Ninety-five percent of the Mandan died from small pox.

Baker provided more than insight and historical perspectives to the members
of the two cultural committees. He added a little philosophy. He said when
he was growing up many people from the non-Indian culture lived nearby;
Norwegians, Germans and others.

"I didn't know they were white. We need to understand who we are as
American people; we are all different.

"We fought for freedom and justice, but we aren't there yet. American
Indians fought before they were even citizens."