Jourdan Bennett-Begaye and Pauly Denetclaw
ARLINGTON, Virginia — It was a dream come true. The drums that Walter Lamar heard bouncing off the walls of the Pentagon in a dream once many years ago were now a reality. With a big grin, Lamar round danced in the courtyard with Indigenous people and allies who worked locally and those who came thousands of miles to attend this historic Native American Heritage Month event.
Lamar answered the call to work in the Pentagon Force Protection Agency in 2015 and 2016.
“And while I was working here, every once in a while you see a Native in the hallway and you go talk to him or you'd see other folks,” Lamar said. “But one day I thought, how important would it be that Natives would be here at the Pentagon being honored because through the hallways you see evidence of our service.”
In the 17 miles of the Pentagon hallway, it’s easy to get lost, Lamar said. “When I first came to work here, I ran across a portrait of Charles Moose Ojibwe from Mille Lacs, and this portrait was there on the wall and it became my landmark and kind of a waypoint.”
Four months ago he received a call from the Pentagon asking what they should do for Native American Heritage Month. “Let’s do this. And today it’s this,” he said with the singing, drumming and round dancing happening behind him.
Lamar, the Indigenous Nations Equality Team under the Department of the Air Force’s Barrier Analysis Working Group, the Department of the Army, Department of Veterans Affairs, Pentagon Force Protection Agency, and many Indigenous peoples and allies came together to make history. To their knowledge, this is the first time an event like this has happened at the Pentagon.
“All those people in the windows, looking out those windows are looking down and looking at our Native veterans,” he said referring to the windows facing the Pentagon courtyard.
When the ceremony began with the Kiowa Black Leggings Society and Uptown Singers Drum Group, more than 300 people dressed in uniform, regalia and civilian clothes in every corner of the courtyard — attending the ceremony or not — stood to give their attention and respect for three songs while the colors were presented.
Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians Chairman Mark Macarro gave the invocation. More remarks were given by Christine Nez Nalli who is Navajo and the Washington Headquarters Service Chief of Human Resources and Alicia Sylvester of Jemez Pueblo who serves as the Department of Defense Senior Advisor and Liaison for Native American Affairs. Larry Yazzie, Meskwaki Nation, and the Cochiti Pueblo Drum Group also performed during the celebration. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks briefly stopped by before the event.
It has been long known that American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the military at the highest rate per capita compared to other ethnic groups.
“Native Americans serve at a rate five times higher than the average American population,” said Richard G. Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and energy resilience.
On top of that, nearly 20 percent of service women are American Indian and Alaska Native. Indigenous women serve at the highest per capita rate of any other groups. The national average of women serving is 15 percent, he said.
This despite the violent history between the United States military and Indigenous nations who have lived on these lands for thousands of years.
“The history of the United States military and Native Americans is long and complex,” Kidd said. It began before the Constitution, but in the Constitution it says that the United States recognizes foreign nation states and Indian tribes as sovereign entities. That's in the United States Constitution. Sadly, throughout a series of actions, whether it was the Removal Act, the movement to the reservations, the allotment period, the forced assimilation and the boarding schools, we have not necessarily lived up to the promise of the words in the Constitution. I acknowledge that.”
While this was a historic event and one that was a long time coming, mistakes were made that wouldn’t have happened to other dignitaries from foreign nations who were invited to the Pentagon, Lamar respectfully noted. Speakers repeatedly mispronounced the names of Indigenous leaders and nations.
“They'd make sure they know every name,” Lamar said. “They've got to do that for us.”
The Indigenous Nations Equality Team, championed by Brig. Gen. Terrence Adams, organized the event to ensure that Indigenous service members feel included and celebrated. But the work of the team doesn’t end there.
“We have Native Americans serving at all ranks but my goal is to try to get one all the way up to the highest level,” Adams said. “They have the talent and skills to do so. It just takes mentorship to get there.”
Adams and the Indigenous Nations Equality Team serve as mentors and this work is ongoing.
Indigenous veterans and active members of service were dressed in their regalia and traditional clothing. Others like U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Maureen Trujillo, Cochiti Pueblo, and U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Timothy W. Garcia, Acoma Pueblo, were dressed in their uniforms.
“If there would have been something like this event here on the grounds of the Pentagon like this today, it would have made an absolute difference,” Lamar said referring to his time working for the Pentagon. “It would've ensured that I was welcomed and was understood.”
The event was winding down and the sun was setting. It was quiet except for the laugh of two Native kids who were playing on an air vent in the middle of the Pentagon courtyard. The vent was blowing out air and their long hair was blowing up. They looked at each other with big smiles and their arms outstretched.
These kids would never know a time where Indigenous service members and veterans weren’t celebrated at the Pentagon.
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