Navajo veterans face unique experiences
Aside from the Navajo Code-talkers in World War II, Native American veterans are often forgotten.
But, America’s first true citizens have a love for their country.
"A long time ago, our natives weren’t treated very well," said April Wisley, of the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program, "yet they go into the service, they are very patriotic people. They still want to defend their land."
Jess Fowler, a Navajo World War II veteran from Pace, Arizona who is speaking Sunday at the Navajo Rug Sale at Deer Valley, is one of them.
"I was proud to defend the country," Fowler said.
Even though he was drafted, he still felt a sense of duty.
"They told us to kill the Japanese that’s what I did," Fowler said. "I went on to the South Pacific and fought the Japanese and we won. I’m a free man I can do anything. I’m not afraid of anybody."
Fowler said he’s grateful to now live in peace in Arizona. He believes most other Native American veterans felt as he did.
"They are really proud what they did for their country," Fowler said. "Everybody promises to save the country, we’d do anything."
Fowler, however, feels the country’s involvement in World War II had a more noble intention.
"We don’t like the war in Iraq now. We don’t want any war they are wasting," he said. "They don’t fight, they just kill these guys. We fought different in World War II than Iraq."
Albert Benally, who will also speak Sunday, is a Navajo police officer and former Marine that lives on the reservation in New Mexico. He experienced a different kind of war during the ’80s the Cold War. For him, it was an informational war and because of his skin color he was persecuted.
When he served, he was one of two Native Americans in a 1,100-person Marine Corps.
"The other one was Clayton Longtree who was caught for espionage against the United States," Benally said.
Longtree, according to Benally, fell in love with a K.G.B secretary in the soviet secret service. In an exchange for a relationship, Longtree gave her confidential U.S. information.
"Finally, he thought he was in a world of shit so he proposed to the CIA to become a double-agent," Benally said.
The U.S. agreed and sent Longtree back to London. During his stay he was caught giving information to the soviets. The U.S. caught him by using a C.I.A. agent posing as a Soviet agent to get more information out of Longtree.
Some thought he spied on the U.S. because he was a Native American and may have held a grudge against the country that stole his peoples’ land.
"I was in Panama at that time when the incident broke out in Moscow," Benally said. "(Longtree) came out and talked about the oppression against the Native Americans. So they took me back to see if I was loyal."
Through a process, the U.S. re-approved his loyalty and sent Benally back into full-service at a communist post in Bulgaria.
Even though his leaders approved of him, his peers didn’t offer him the same respect.
"It was always a continuous battle for me when I was on post," Benally said. "Once people found out that I’m a Native American, it got worse."
Not only did other soldiers question his loyalty, but communist citizens would test it as well.
"When the local citizens found that I’m an American, they’d say why are you doing this?" Benally said, "Why are you doing this for a people that stole your land?"
At times he questioned why he was there. But, Benally had little choice.
"The No. 1 reason why a poor man gets off the reservation is to find job," Benally said. "Nobody gets up and says, ‘I want to die for Old Glory.’ There’s no economic or support here on the reservation. Where else would you go to feed yourself and support you and your family?"
It wasn’t easy for Benally, but he is thankful for the experience he had in serving the country. He feels pride in being part of "the elite Marine corps."
"There are pros and cons to it, but I wouldn’t trade in what I went through," Benally said. "You deal with everything. It was hard going through boot camp; I went around the world four times over. I saw more harsh conditions than on the reservation.
"At that time, I probably would throw my body in front of Reagan to save his life because I met him a couple times."
Now, he serves a different role as the chief detective in New Mexico’s McKinley County. Recently he received an award in Philadelphia for the Police Chief of the Year. He is helping the people on the reservation more than he would have hoped. His position, he claims, is available because of the things he learned while serving the country.
"I give credit to the principle that the Marine Corps taught me," Benally said. "The initiative, the integrity the discipline. There’s a lot of leadership and being confident in order to do what you need to do to overcome.
"Twenty-five years later, I can still recite my drill instructors like it was yesterday. I thought I’d forget that but it never goes away," Benally said.
The Navajo Rug Sale fundraiser for people on the Navajo Reservation will start today with a sale of rugs, jewelry and a live auction. The event will also feature Native American actor Jay Tavare who will be auctioning off items from his films at tonight’s dinner and auction event. Rich Wyman will also perform tonight from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tickets for tonight are $30. Saturday and Sunday is open to the public. Saturday will also include the Navajo Little Princess pageant at 10:30 a.m. along with a silent auction of children’s rugs from 1 to 3:30 p.m, a grandmother’s weaving demonstration at 1 p.m. Sunday is also open to the public. The flag ceremony, the Navajo veterans’ speeches and the Navajo Blessing Ceremony will take place from 10 a.m. until noon. At 1 p.m. there will be a grandmother’s weaving demonstration and at 3 p.m. there will be powwow dancing. Tickets are $5 per person or $5 in canned goods for Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 649-0535.
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