Learning From the ‘Way of the Warrior’
Native American veterans honored, reintegrated into communities
“I imagined him standing
up there taking the oath to defend the Constitution, as all recruits do, and I
thought about how ironic it was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any
protection under the Constitution,” Loew says.
It was an image that has
always remained with her, and was, in part, inspiration for the 2007 WPT
documentary Way of the Warrior.
Native Americans have
served in the U.S.
military in greater numbers proportionate to other ethnic groups and are among
the most highly decorated. Using veterans’ stories from both world wars, Korea and Vietnam, Way of the Warrior explores the complexities surrounding Native
American military service, and also, according to Loew, examines the meaning of
“ogichidaa—one who protects and follows the way of the warrior.”
According to the
documentary, among the patterns that emerge during periods of war is “Indian
Scout Syndrome,” Loew says. “From very early on, Native soldiers were put out
in front because the American military believed that they were somehow innately
better at warfare.”
The stereotypical and
even “superhuman” qualities attached to Native soldiers had severe
consequences, as they were placed in dangerous situations more often. In Vietnam,
“Native American soldiers were three times more likely to see moderate to heavy
combat” than other soldiers, Loew says. Facing greater danger and being exposed
to greater trauma meant higher instances of PTSD, she adds.
Loew and her colleague,
historian Tom Holm, author of Strong
Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War, found
that Native American veterans who returned to communities that still practiced
purification and healing rituals were much less likely to exhibit strong
symptoms of PTSD.
community I spent time in had purification rituals for returning veterans,”
Loew says. “The Hopi wash the hair of their returning veterans in yucca leaves
and give them new names. They would spend a period of 24 to 48 hours with clan
members and they would tell their war stories. The Ojibwe, my own, have lodge
ceremonies. The Plains tribes have sweat lodge ceremonies. These ceremonies are
a part of reintegrating veterans into their communities.”
As men and women return
from Iraq and Afghanistan, Loew says that the concept of
reintegration is something that mainstream America could learn from Native
“They’ve come back
wounded emotionally and psychologically and we as a community have an
obligation to them as individuals, but we also have an obligation to protect
ourselves and there are protocols in place in Indian country for that. We don’t
have protocols in place in the larger community,” she says. “We’re ready to
hand them papers and say here’s your G.I. loan and here’s where you get housing
assistance, and here’s the directions to the nearest V.A. hospital—but that is
Jesse Torres, statewide
spokesman for the Wisconsin Indian Veterans Association (WIVA) and longtime
veterans’ rights advocate, served two tours in Vietnam in the Navy. A member of
the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Torres began advocating for veterans within
months of his return from duty in 1967. He formerly served as the tribal
services coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, has
volunteered with Wisconsin Veterans Stand Down for 20 years and was awarded an
eagle feather—the highest honor awarded in Native American cultures—for his
activism on behalf of veterans.
Native American ceremonies and eagle feather presentations performed among his
tribe and other tribes as more personal than honorary ceremonies held at state
or national levels. It was a realization that took time, he says.
“When I go before people
that have a different way of looking at life, life seems more precious,” he
says. “Going back to a couple hundred years ago, we had ceremonies—purification
ceremonies, ceremonies that help people adjust after war. We knew that war was
not right. We knew that when you went into war you were a different person when
you came out. Now, after all these years the military has started to look at
that that way, that maybe we should be helping these men and women become
civilians again after being in these situations of death and destruction.
“We just look at it differently,”
he continues. “We don’t honor the war; we honor the warrior.”
Indian Summer Festival runs Sept. 10-12 on the Summerfest grounds. This year’s theme, “Honoring Our Warriors,” recognizes veterans, active military personnel and first responders.