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Diversity

Chevato

The Beginning of a Comanche Military Legacy

About 150 years ago, when my great-grandfather Chevato joined the Army as a cavalry scout, he became the first known Comanche to officially enlist in the U.S. armed forces.

In doing so, he joined a long lineage of Native American warriors. In fact, according to Marcus Monenerkit, director of community engagement at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Native Americans have a long history of assisting and serving in the U.S. military. From providing sustenance to colonists during the Revolutionary War to scouting and trading moccasins for boots during the Civil War, they were actually involved in every conflict, sometimes on both sides. Monenerkit mentioned that the tribal leaders sided with whoever they thought would benefit their people the most. Sometimes they gravely miscalculated, and war later destroyed their ways of life, homes and families.

As violence between pioneers and local tribes grew with the increase and expansion of settler population, many tribes fought to retain their lands and way of life. At the same time, the English, Spanish, French, and American governments frequently exploited tribal rivalries as part of the effort to gain control of territory and emerge victorious from America's various conflicts.

Indian Scouts

The U.S. military began early on to recognize and appreciate the talents many Native Americans possessed, including their tracking, scouting and land navigation skills. For example, after the Civil War, the Army came to rely on Indian scouts like Chevato as interpreters and guides, and hired them to serve as bounty hunters. Scouts would also return Indians who had escaped from reservations to their designated tribal areas during the Indian War Campaigns. As a result, Natives were often better accepted and tolerated in the military than in the civilian world, said James C. Walker of Georgia Southern University in a graduate thesis titled “From Scouts to Soldiers.”

According to the National Archives, there were two types of Indian scouts: enlisted and hired. Hired scouts were similar to modern contractors and typically paid a monthly wage, often for short expeditions lasting only a few weeks. Enlisted Indian scouts served for about six months at a time and received the same pay as white cavalry privates. Some Native Americans also served as regular infantry and cavalry Soldiers in short-lived Indian companies in the 1890s. About 16 Native Americans even received Medals of Honor in the second half of the 19th century.

One of the Army's toughest campaigns was against the Apache. The Chiricahua band of Apaches, led by Geronimo, roamed territory ranging from Arizona and New Mexico to western Texas and northern Mexico. Geronimo's band aggressively attacked wagon trains and settlers in retaliation for the loss of their land and the government's abandonment of their reservation agreement.

Brigadier Gen. George Crook was charged with returning the tribal members to their reservations and restoring order. He was known for his willingness to negotiate with tribes and his immense trust in and use of Indian scouts. “The Scouts had first-hand knowledge of 'every trail, every water hole, every hideout in the vast labyrinth of mountains crisscrossing the southwest.' The 'enemy' was not only their own tribe, but often their own clan. Crook believed there was none better to track the Apache than other Apache. The Apache Scouts played a decisive role, right up to the final surrender of Geronimo in 1886,” said an article on the Army's website.

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The First Comanche

Chevato himself was born Lipan Apache, but, in about 1893, he was adopted into Quanah Parker's band of the Comanche tribe in an effort to leave the Mescalero Agency reservation. Adoption is a practice the Native American culture has used throughout history to “replenish tribal numbers and care for older, childless members,” wrote William Chebahtah and Nancy Minor in the book Chevato.

According to family oral history and the aforementioned book, Chevato enlisted as a scout in March 1883 in Fort Stanton, New Mexico, probably as a way to feed his family. According to a historical report, many of the tribal members on the reservation were starving, as the government did not appropriate funds to pay for their rations. Upon enlistment, the Army gave new scouts each $5 with which to make purchases at the commissary.

Chevato was attached to Troop B, 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Capt. John Lee. Chevato's first assignment was to accompany Lt. George Gale and his troops on a futile search for Indians who had left their reservations. His enlistment was extended, and a portion of the company was detached to accompany Lt. Thomas Symons, an Army engineer who was tasked with surveying the international boundary between the United States and Mexico. While scouting for Symons, Chevato was asked to serve as an interpreter for Geronimo's parley, one of the military's unsuccessful attempts to get Geronimo and his band to agree to live on a reservation. Chevato ended up not being needed, but the Army allowed him to stay and listen. He then left to finish scouting with the surveyors. This was the end of his first enlistment.

In September 1885, the cavalry sent another scouting party from Fort Stanton to the Mescalero Agency reservation to search for signs of Geronimo's band. Chevato re-enlisted, and, together with four other Indians, served as a scout under Lt. Thomas Cruse, attached to Troop D, 6th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. When the final campaign against Geronimo was launched in 1886, Chevato and his brother, Dinero, helped patrol southern New Mexico, closing off any escape avenues Geronimo might try to use, and marching a total of 493 miles. At some point during his time as an Indian scout, according to his pension paperwork, Chevato was shot in the right hip and shoulder, but the the paperwork provides no dates or other details. He was discharged shortly after Geronimo was captured in September 1886. Chevato then returned to the Mescalero Agency reservation to continue his civilian occupation as a policeman.

According to family history, Chevato is the only Comanche known to have been awarded the Indian War Campaign Medal for service during the Apache Campaign, but because different military officers completed his paperwork, his records were filed under several different names.

“The name Billie Chebahtah was given me by the officer who enrolled me or by the superintendent of the [Mescalero] Agency. That was the name under which I was enrolled,” Chevato was recorded saying Oct. 14, 1926, during his interrogation for a pension. “Chebahtah has been my family name ever since.”

Following Tradition

Under this new name, Chevato's descendants have followed his example of service, and at least one person has worn a uniform in every generation since. In fact, the Chebahtah family boasts the most veterans in the Comanche tribe. And as each of us has, in turn, raised our hands to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States, it has been with Chevato's advice echoing in our minds.

“You've got this little thing,” Chevato told his grandsons when they became warriors. “A lot of people call it a conscience. A lot of people call it instinct. I call it instinct. What you have to do is listen to that voice within yourself. If you ever go into combat, you must listen to that voice. And never hesitate.”


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World War II

When one of those grandsons, Clifford D. Chebahtah, my uncle,* enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, Chevato told him that he should always carry a second weapon if he was to ever go into combat.

During World War II, Clifford was assigned to the 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. He had a leather holster made so he could always carry a hunting knife underneath his uniform. He told his family he heeded his inner voice, his instinct, during combat in the Pacific — just like his grandfather said.

On Feb. 19, 1945, the 5th Marine Division landed on the southeastern shore of Iwo Jima. It was up to the 28th Regiment to seize Mount Suribachi, while the rest of the 5th Division was attacking to the north, toward the airfields and the main Japanese defenses. Although Marines separated Suribachi from the rest of the island on D-Day, the volcano had intricate honeycombs of enemy defensive positions and observation posts. Until Suribachi fell, Marines would have no peace from accurate and devastating Japanese fire.

As the 28th Regiment was attacking Suribachi, the remainder of the 5th Marine Division moved along the northwest side of the island. The division's area of responsibility lay between the western beaches and a hundred-foot high bluff, which ran down the center of the island and curved across the 5th Division's front near Airfield No. 2. The bluff gave the Japanese the perfect position to observe and oppose any advances from the front and right flank.

At some point during the battle, an artillery shell dropped on an airplane fuel tank. Clifford had initially taken cover behind it, and the explosion would have killed him had he not moved moments before. He listened to his inner voice. This was the first instance his grandfather's advice saved him. The second time was when Clifford was forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat with a Japanese marine after running out of ammunition. The hidden knife he always wore under his uniform gave him the advantage he needed to continue the fight.

Americans captured Mount Suribachi after four days, at a cost of more than 900 Marines. According to family history, my uncle was lying wounded in a ditch when Marines famously raised the American flag on the mountain. He later received the Purple Heart. American forces soon turned Mount Suribachi in to a vital observation post, although the battle for the island itself slogged on for more than a month. Some 7,000 Americans were killed.

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Vietnam

In 1971, my dad, Julian L. Chebahtah, followed the family tradition and joined another sea service. With his love of the ocean, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 18 as an aviation maintenance administrationman (AZ). He served for 21 years, retiring as a first class petty officer. His assignments included tours with Fighter Squadron One One Four (VF-114) aboard aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), Attack Squadron One Six Five (VA-165) aboard aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV 64), and Fighter Squadron One Two Six (VF-126) and the Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3). One tour he talked about was his assignment aboard the Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Oklahoma City (CLG 5) during Vietnam.

According to the ship's history, on Feb. 4, 1972, Oklahoma City fired a Talos RIM-8H anti-radiation missile and destroyed a North Vietnamese mobile radar installation. It was the first successful surface-to-surface combat missile shot in U.S. Navy history. On Apr. 4, 1972, the ship received hostile fire from shore batteries north of the Cua Viet River and earned the Combat Action Ribbon. Hostile fire was received on numerous occasions from varied coastal positions during the month of April.

Dad's awards and medals included the Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Commendation, Navy Expeditionary Medal with bronze star, and Meritorious Unit Commendation Medal. He became the first Comanche to be buried at sea in 2012, when he was laid to rest from the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4).

My dad's love of the ocean and devotion to service was not lost on me. I chose to follow in his footsteps and joined the Navy in 2009. My nephew Darien L. Chebahtah became the fifth-generation Chebahtah to serve in the U.S. armed forces. He enlisted in the Navy in July 2013 at the age of 17. In doing so, he joined a Native American warrior tradition that dates back to before the time of the Revolution, a tradition that will continue for centuries to come.

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Author's note: I, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anita Chebahtah Newman, am full-blooded Native American. My mom is Arapaho and my dad is Comanche; both are from Oklahoma. My mother's family has a strong tradition of service as well. So far, dating back to World War II, four generations have served. This is part four of a multi-part series about Native American culture and its many ties to the military. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here.

*Clifford Don was technically my dad's cousin, but I call everyone in his generation my aunts and uncles. Native Americans describe family relationships like this because if one or both parents pass away, the family is always taken care of.