Sunday, November 29, 2009

7296: G.I. Navajo.

From The Chicago Tribune…

Veterans wall honors American Indians’ military service

By Dan Simmons, Tribune reporter

In his youth, Joe Yazzie wanted to be an artist. But his mother knew he would be a warrior in the proud tradition of his Navajo forebears. He was named for G.I. Joe and was made to run and chop wood in his native New Mexico to keep fit and prepare for war.

“There will be another one,” his mother warned.

She was right. Yazzie was drafted shortly after high school and served a tour in 1964 as an Army machine gunner in Vietnam, joining his brother Harold, a Marine.

“It’s just in our blood,” he said. “We want to be warriors, and we tend to join the military.”

After the war, he moved to Chicago, raised a family and found success as an artist.

Now, in his retirement, he has fused the defining themes of his life as artist-in-residence at the recently opened Native American Wall of Honor at Trickster Gallery in Schaumburg. It’s the second memorial to American Indian veterans in the Midwest and will be on display until next spring.

The American Indian Center of Chicago operates Trickster, the only American Indian-operated arts institute in Illinois. On the wall are framed photos of men and women who wore the uniform in conflicts stretching from the Indian Wars to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each was submitted by family members in the Chicago area and bears the veteran’s name, tribe and branch of service. Some wear pressed military suits or bomber jackets; a few are in helmet and fatigues, dog tags visible, clutching machine guns.

Veterans like Yazzie, 67, are still alive. But others on the wall, such as Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, a Hopi mother of two from Arizona, never came home. Piestewa was the first female soldier killed in Iraq.

Then there are those like Christopher Stumblingbear, a Chippewa-Lakota soldier from Chicago, who remain in harm’s way in Iraq.

Stumblingbear’s wife, Monica Boutwell, coordinated the exhibit along with Yazzie. They hope to expand it substantially and make it a permanent fixture.

“We’re just trying to honor some of the people who served this country,” Yazzie said. “We have every right to be remembered.”

American Indians have fought in every war since the American Revolution, said military historian Eleanor Hannah, who has her doctorate at the University of Chicago and specializes in Illinois National Guard history.

More than 190,000 of them served in the U.S. military during the 20th century, and they enlist at a rate three times higher than any other ethnic group, according to the U.S. Naval Historical Center.

Prominent on the wall is Yazzie’s family.

“Right here, this guy, he’s my grandfather,” he said, pointing to a framed photo of 37 Navajo scouts who served as military police alongside Army forces during the late-1800s campaign against Geronimo.

”And this guy here, that’s my uncle Frank,” he continued, pointing to another photo on the wall of Navajo “code talkers” who used their native language to transmit messages for the Allies in the Pacific during World War II. Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to honor them in 2002.

Many American Indian families have similar stories to tell, he said. But not all are willing to tell them. The wall at the Trickster attracted only about 40 photos, he said, partly due to a reluctance to talk about their service that runs particularly deep among American Indian veterans.

“They really don’t want to come forward for some reason,” Yazzie said.

Studies of American Indian vets from the Vietnam War era have revealed alarming rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism and homelessness, particularly when they returned from war to remote reservations with little access to mental heath care.

One study of Vietnam-era American Indian vets found they were twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as their white comrades, a reality some researchers attribute to their often deep identification with the indigenous populations they are sent to fight.

The research also revealed that Native American troops were often more likely to be assigned risky combat roles, another reason for their high PTSD rates.

In many tribes, veterans are granted feathered warrior costumes by medicine men and given the right to lead the procession into powwows. But throughout history there also has been an undercurrent of dissent against veterans among some American Indians, said Hannah, the military historian.

“There are plenty who refused to serve and been critical of anyone who joins,” she said. “There are definitely still those who hold that view.”

The backlash is understandable, she said, among a people who have long fought against the same armed forces they now fight among.

Bill Smith, a Chicago police detective with the gang crimes unit, is Lakota and an Army veteran who fought in Vietnam, Grenada and Panama.

His photo hangs on the wall beside that of his brother-in-law, Albert Wayne Morgan, a Cherokee who served in Vietnam as an airman. Smith noted that military service follows naturally from the warrior ethic.

“We hold warriors in high esteem,” he said. “They’re the protectors, the example setters, for everyone else.”

Yazzie said he returned from Vietnam intact physically but haunted by the deaths of comrades and frustrated by fellow Americans. Others who returned before him warned him not to wear his uniform for fear of being spit on and called “baby killer.” He moved to Chicago, where he had hoped to attend art school. But he said he lapsed into alcoholism.

“There was just no stopping it,” he said. “I was dependent on it.”

Yazzie credits his wife, Lillian, for helping him sober up in the late 1970s and find success as a commercial artist for Montgomery Ward in Chicago.

“She saved my life,” he said, touching the dog tags and silver cross that hang from his neck. “Without her I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.”

When he retired, he took up painting, the original reason for his move to Chicago. His paintings feature icons of Indian life and military culture, both celebrating and questioning the intersection.

In one painting on display at Trickster, a woman sports the long black hair and elegant jewels of a Navajo and is wrapped in an American flag. She looks, weeping, at a section of a veterans memorial wall inscribed with names of dozens of fallen soldiers. They include Yazzie’s veteran relatives and James L. Kramer, a comrade from Las Vegas. Kramer went through boot camp with Yazzie and fought alongside him in Vietnam.

“We talked about hot dogs and hamburgers and ice cream,” Yazzie said, “all these things we missed about home that we would do together once we got back.”

Kramer was killed in action when ambushed on a patrol along the Cambodian border. Yazzie never got to say goodbye. He dedicated the painting to Kramer and said he hopes to find his family and give it to them.

“They could have been doctors or lawyers,” he said, pointing to the names of the fallen. “They could have discovered things to improve our lives. But they sacrificed. Ever since, I’ve had this guilty feeling. Why them and not me?”

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