SECNAV Message on Native American Heritage Month

23 November 2021
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro message to the Department of the Navy, November 23, 2021, on Native American Heritage Month.

In a few days, most of us will gather with loved ones around the country to give Thanks during one of our most endearing national holidays. As we prepare to do so, I want to take a moment to show appreciation and recognize a very special group of people to whom our country owes much.  During this Native American Heritage Month, we share our respect, admiration, and gratitude towards the Native American men and women who serve our great Nation in and out of uniform.

The Department of the Navy honors the legacy of every Native American who has ever worn the uniform of a United States Marine or Sailor, and celebrates the service of every Native American in our force and fleet today. As Native American Heritage Month comes to a close, our respect, admiration, and gratitude towards Native American men and women in our ranks endures throughout the year. The United States Navy and Marine Corps has a rich legacy of faithful and selfless service of Native American service members. 

We remember John Goodluck and the other Marine Navajo Code Talkers, whose valiant service enabled secure communication across the Pacific theater, frustrating the actions of our adversaries and saving the lives of countless Americans.  Goodluck’s actions, and those of many others, directly contributed to our victory in World War II.

We remember Sailors like Engineman Second Class Michael Thornton, who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam for saving the life of his Navy SEAL teammate following a daring operation against an enemy-occupied naval river base.  Michael epitomized the Navy’s core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.

And we remember great leaders, like Rear Admiral Francis J. Mee.  A member of the White Earth band of Minnesota Ojibwe Tribe, Admiral Mee served in both World Wars with honor and distinction.

For the Navy, ship names are important.  The name of a ship carries great significance: it shows the people, ideas, and places that we value as a department and a Nation.  We value our Native American communities.  The Navy currently has 11 ships named after Native American peoples or individuals; six are already in service and five are currently under construction.  The crew forges a forever bond with the ship’s namesake, personifying the namesake’s character, values, and qualities. Whether a destroyer, logistics ship, or rescue vessel, these 11 ships currently serve - and will serve - an essential role in our Nation’s ability to project power, deter aggression, maintain freedom of the seas, and support our allies and partners across the globe.

Today, the Department of the Navy benefits from the service of more than 15,000 Native American service members. They serve in every part of the world.  They are servant-leaders of Marines and Sailors.  They command warships, regiments, and squadrons.  They are squad leaders, logisticians, and cyber warriors.  They are sailing international waters, they are training partner nations, and they are providing forward presence. Regardless of rank, our Native American service members are technical and tactical experts, executing complex missions throughout the world.

And they are on the home front.  Imbued in “warrior tradition,” a warrior’s responsibility extends beyond fighting to caring for their community, especially in dire times.  Our Native American service members have always been among the thousands of Active Duty, Reserve, or National Guard who deploy across our nation to provide aid and support to states, major cities, and local communities in times of crisis.  We saw this most recently as the Navy and Marine Corps answered the call in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, repatriating citizens, conducting tests, administering vaccines, and even providing medical support side-by-side with our amazing civilian medical professionals.

As Secretary, I am committed to ensure that the Department of the Navy embodies the values it is charged to defend.  I am resolute in being a good neighbor to the Native American communities that many of our faithful service members are from and with which we serve alongside.  The Navy and Marine Corps recognize that we have an obligation to be good stewards of the natural and cultural resources that are important to our Native American communities.  As federal trustees, the Department is charged with a responsibility to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law.  We take these obligations seriously.  

In the spirit of partnership and cooperation, we strive to build and nurture a lasting collaborative relationship of respect, trust, and openness with tribal governments to protect the rights and sovereignty of Native Americans while meeting the national security needs of our Nation.  National security laws and policies are most effective and enduring when we have diversity of thought and perspective on issues of mutual importance, and are inclusive of all stakeholders.  We will be good neighbors, and we will be good partners.

Grounded in tradition, and resilient in spirit, the Native Americans who serve in our ranks and protect our Nation deserve our greatest admiration and respect, as do the great Native American communities within the United States of America. We are eternally grateful that you have entrusted us with your sons and daughters as they pursue their chosen path in life.  We will keep faith.  We honor their service and recognize their sacrifices, and those of their families and communities. We own our responsibility in managing the spiritual cost of military service, particularly combat service, and in reassuring our warriors of their continued place in our ranks and their communities.

As we reflect on our shared warrior culture and legacy of service to mission and community, let us remember the rich heritage and the boundless future promise of every Native American serving in our Navy and Marine Corps, and the communities they call home.  I am honored to be your teammate and serve by your side.


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