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History and Heritage

Carved Through Naval Experience

A Native Musician's Inspiration

The sun slowly ascends over the Arizona horizon. Crickets, locusts, bees and flies buzz around world-renowned Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Cacti stand tall, and thorn bushes and tumble weeds soak up the warm morning light. Nakai begins playing his flute, and the soothing melody echoes through the hills.



Nakai, of Ute, Navajo and Zuni descent, is from northern Arizona. Most of his fans don't know that he is also a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. He laughed as he recalled the day he was drafted into the U.S. military during his freshman year as a music major at Northern Arizona University.

Drafted

“I got my draft notice in 1966,” he said. “I was with the Northern Arizona University marching band on the band practice field. The director and all of us watched this little golf cart coming down the street, a postal cart. It delivered two brown envelopes and kicked two of us out of the band that very evening. I looked at it and it said, 'Welcome.'”

When he got home, he told his mother and asked her to take him to the recruiting station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although his father had served in the Navy as a store keeper, he wanted to join the Marine Corps like his uncles, who had served as code talkers during World War II.

When he walked into the recruiting office, he weighed only 117 pounds.

“The two fat old guys sitting in there said, 'Oh, you're so slender! I'm afraid we would kill you in the Marines.' I said, 'No you won't. My tribes were known for being able to run great distances; maybe I will challenge you. Let's go outside behind the office, run up the hill and come down. Let's see who gets back here first.' They wouldn't do it,” Nakai said.

Meanwhile, a Navy recruiter was listening nearby, and pulled Nakai into his office. Nakai chuckled as he remembered the Sailor selling the benefits of joining the Navy, mentioning that the service had good food and nice beds with the sheets changed every week. Nakai signed up.

Radioman

He attended boot camp in San Diego in early 1967, then “A” school for the radioman (RM) rating. Nakai was assigned to Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMSTA) Honolulu and message center Makalapa (CINCPACFLT).

There, Nakai tuned radios by hand and maintained World War II-era communications equipment. At one point during the Vietnam War, he attempted voice communications over the radio with commands along the Pacific Rim, using the Navajo language to communicate — code talking like his uncles, essentially. The plan did not work as expected, however, as the members receiving the messages did not understand the code words.

The radioman rating was overmanned at the time, and some Sailors were temporarily assigned to different duties. “I turned into a stenographer, a typist, file clerk and official coffee maker,” said Nakai. He was interviewed and selected for a drafting position at CINCPACFLT, responsible for drawing maps of antenna fields on the island.

“I would have to make blueprint copies for all the offices and send them down to Pearl Harbor at the end of each month. That was my first real duty and duty station. RM3 Nakai — coffee maker and draftsman,” he chuckled. “But I enjoyed it.”

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Musician

While in Hawaii, Nakai also tried to continue his music studies. He had his trumpet sent from home and tried out for the Royal Hawaiian Band. The locals thought he was Chinese Hawaiian and did not believe him to be American Indian. In fact, while he never experienced discrimination, he was always mistaken for a different ethnicity or nationality. In the end, it didn't matter. He wasn't Hawaiian, so he wasn't eligible to play in the band, but he found little side jobs around town, like playing “Charge” at baseball games and taps for funerals.

One time while home on leave, he was asked to play taps for a local family. Some of the people in attendance seemed familiar, but because he had not visited his family in a long time, he didn't think much of it. After the funeral, he asked who was being buried. He learned the family was from Sawmill, Arizona, where his relatives were from, including twin cousins who were in the Army. It turned out to be one of his cousins, who had been killed during the battle of Hamburger Hill in 1969. His grandpa was upset, telling Nakai, “I wish you were the one we were burying today.” Nakai went home, telling his parents he was done; he didn't want anything to do with playing taps ever again.

A year later, his remaining cousin encouraged him to continue performing taps, telling him it was his responsibility to play because it was a form of respect.

“It's probably the highest form of respect I can ever do for someone whose life has been taken,” said Nakai. “It's kind of a way for me to also address the fact that it doesn't matter what cultural community or racial group we belong to here in this country; we are all immigrants from somewhere else, and we are trying to defend the representative democracy that we have. We do it in this way, but as a veteran, my responsibility is to try to ease people into the awareness that it wasn't all for nothing. There is a reason for that, and there are thousands of other families that have suffered the same grief and horror. It is just what I must do.”

He still plays taps today, albeit on a different instrument. A traffic accident caused him lose the ability to form the correct embouchure (mouth position), so he is no longer able to play the trumpet.

“Even playing 'Amazing Grace' or taps on the eagle bone whistle* to a mass crowd at a pow wow or memorial, someone will come up and tell me that they've had a son or daughter killed in Afghanistan,” said Nakai. “That's all part of the responsibility of being here; that's all I can say. That's why we are Americans. We give ourselves so that others can survive successfully. We have no control over it because it's ingrained in us.”

Protests

Nakai was next assigned to aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA 64), homeported in San Diego. He once again worked outside of his division, inspecting all voids for needed maintenance and vents for cleanliness. During his year there, the ship traveled up to Bremerton, Washington, for re-fitting, and conducted sea-trials in the North Pacific, returning just before he got out of the Navy.

At the end of his enlistment, he received a cruel homecoming, as did many veterans from the Vietnam conflict.

“When we came into San Diego,” he recalled, “even though I wasn't in combat duty, they pelted us — Marines, Air Force and Navy — with eggs, rotten eggs, rotten oranges, rotten apples, probably urine. [It] looked like lemon juice that they threw on us. We had a police escort through the San Diego airport. The police just kept saying 'Don't stop walking; just keep going. We'll take you to your flights.'

“And I got home and my mother thought I got totally snockered or wiped out on the plane, or I came home from Honolulu and I was still drunk. I said, 'No, no, no! This is the welcome home that we got when we landed in San Diego.' And so she said, 'Well, when we get home, take it off and I'll have it dry cleaned.' I said, 'No, no, no. You will never dry clean this uniform; put it in the bag, let it dry, and I'm going to keep it that way forever.'”

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Flutist

Despite such treatment, Nakai enjoyed his time in the service. He got out of the Navy as a radioman second class, appreciative of the opportunity to meet so many people from all walks of life. His naval experience helped him reach outside the Native American culture to educate others about his traditions, and also to learn about other ethnicities throughout the world.

After the Navy, Nakai went back to college, receiving first a bachelor of science in applied sciences with an emphasis in graphic arts from Northern Arizona University, then a master of arts in American Indian studies from the University of Arizona. He started playing the flute in the early 1980s, as a challenge from a friend, and began recording albums as early as 1983. He has since recorded more than 50 albums, earning two gold records and a platinum record.

“The world experience has been something that's greatly influenced how I approach what I do with the indigenous flute of the North American peoples,” Nakai said. “Even though it came by European influence, we have made it specifically our whistle, our flute. It's all decorated in a way that will identify that the flute comes from a specific tribe.”

Native American flutes are woodwind instruments, held directly in front of the musician, unlike the modern Western concert flutes. They can be made out of many different kinds of wood, although most sport six finger holes with which to create beautiful melodies. While most Native American flute music is cheerful and romantic, Nakai's music tells of grief and loss, and is a way of sharing his life story. The music isn't to “drown myself in that feeling [of loss], but to look at it with a sense of dignity and respect.”

Nakai has also used his traditional flute music to participate in cross-culture collaborations and explore other genres, including classical, new age and world-beat jazz.

“I'm still experimenting, even in the modern world, of what I can do with the flute,” he added. “It's an adventure in living.”

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 from Oklahoma. This is the final story of a multi-part series about Native American culture and its many ties to the military. Part one here, part two here, part three here and part four here.

*There are two types of eagle bone whistles. One is a hunting whistle. It's plain, curves upward, has the capability to change pitch and can be used in public settings. This is the kind Nakai uses in his performances. The second kind is a sacred, ceremonial whistle. This whistle is decorated, curves downward and plays one pitch. It's generally carried by men and used only during ceremonies.