Native and in the Navy
One Sailor rediscovers her roots
Men dance with red and blue blankets, similar to stoles, draped over their shoulders. Skunk berry and silver-beaded bandoliers with handkerchief bundles of Indian perfume tied to the back hang across their hearts. In one hand, they shake metal rattles in sync with each drumbeat; in the other, they hold feather fans.
Their feet step and bounce in time, slowly traveling the arena while women stand at the edge of the arena circle, bouncing and stepping with the gourd and drum beats, never leaving their places. This is gourd dancing, and it is known to be the warrior's dance - the veteran's dance.
As with many Native American ceremonies and dances, the origin of the gourd dance has different stories depending on which tribe you ask, the common thread being that it originated with a tribe that roamed the plains - the Kiowa tribe, according to many.
Like much of Native American culture, the gourd dance was lost for many years. According to Dennis Zotigh, a museum cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, it made its comeback in 1955 when a group of Kiowa men who remembered some of the songs and dances revived the Kiowa Gourd Dance and presented it at the American Indian Exposition in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Today, the modern version of this dance is done in the afternoon of most Southern Plains-style pow wows.
Gourd dancing holds a special significance for me. Some of my favorite memories with my mom's family involve gourd dancing. I also gourd danced the first day I truly made peace with who I am.
It was the day of my second reenlistment, Nov. 12, 2016. I had recently agreed to cross-rate to Mass Communication Specialist from Aviation Electronics Technician via Career Waypoints. Needing to reenlist, I decided to hold the ceremony at the Walter's Service Club 5th Annual Veterans Day Honor Pow Wow in Lawton, Oklahoma. It was the most emotional Navy ceremony I've experienced during my career, and it was the most Navy pride and Native pride I have ever felt at the same time. Immediately after I said the Oath of Enlistment, I gourd danced with my officer in charge, family and friends. I will never forget the amount of pride and support I felt that day.
That's partly because I struggled with being Native American for much of my life. I judged my creator and got mad that I'm not like other people, that I'm different and don't seem to "fit in." The day I reenlisted, I was finally at peace with who I am and where I'm supposed to be. I loved me, how I was created, and I was grateful for everything I had been a part of. I was proud to be who God created: a full-blooded Native American - half Arapaho, half Comanche - proudly serving in the United States Navy.
Although I have learned to take pride in being Native, the truth is I grew up in two different homes, two completely separate worlds. After an early childhood spent with my mom in Oklahoma, participating in pow wows, involved and surrounded by my Arapaho heritage, I moved in with my dad and stepmom, and was completely removed from our Native culture. It was something they were not involved in, and my memories of dancing and being at pow wows were all but lost, except for the smell of leather and patchouli.
When I eventually moved back in with my mom in seventh grade, I started dancing again and relearning who I was as a Native. I reconnected with her side of the family and learned more about my family's history of naval service. My grandpa was a World War II veteran and, on my dad's side, military service dates back to 1870. (I will share more about these warriors later in this series.)
This is actually quite common in Native families. Although we as a people have a very long and traumatic history, we have served in the military since America's inception. Being a warrior is something tribal members have always held with great pride and honor, and throughout history, the military has offered Natives the opportunity to carry on this warrior tradition. I believe this is why the Native American population has more veterans per capita than any other ethnic group.
After college, I felt like I had no clear direction for my life, and inspired by this long, honorable tradition, I enlisted in the Navy. I've worked on blending the two halves of my life ever since.
Because of the ignorance and fear about Native culture that I've experienced throughout my life, I've always done my best to share my culture, whether it's through Native celebrations or conversations with my shipmates. As a result, I have started an All Hands series about Native American culture to highlight Native veterans' stories and recognize the culture that has given so much to this great nation.
Author's note: Stay tuned to All Hands magazine to read future installments in this series and learn more about Native Americans and their history of service.