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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 22, 2003 - Issue 81


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Navajo Builds Community on Ship

by Judd Slivka The Arizona Republic
credits: Photo Dave Cruz/The Arizona Republic
Jeff Baloo keeps a small flag of the Navajo NationABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION - On a cluttered desk deep in the bowels of this massive aircraft carrier cruising the Persian Gulf, Jeff Baloo keeps a small flag of the Navajo Nation where he grew up.

Fringed in gold, it's smudged from 15 years aboard a series of Navy ships. For Baloo, the flag represents something virtually unknown in the modern Navy: a community of Navajos on a single ship.

Baloo, a chief yeoman with Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 2, has shown a talent for finding people from the sprawling reservation. His efforts have turned up six people from the Navajo Nation on board the USS Constellation.

"I just look for the last names," said Baloo, who grew up in Pine Springs, south of Window Rock. "Then I start e-mailing them to see. Then I go look for them. From a distance, I can tell. You grow up with people and you know the way they look, you can recognize that across the deck."

People such as Aviation Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Curtis Joe, a half-Navajo, half-San Carlos Apache from San Carlos who joined the ship in November.

"I saw the last name and went out looking for him," Baloo said. "And I found him, and it was like looking at a younger version of myself."

Joe remembers the encounter. "He came up to me and said, 'Hey, you're from Arizona,' " Joe said. "I said I was and he said, 'Where?' Then he started talking to me Navajo."

Always searching
Baloo found another Navajo while walking around the flight deck one day looking at the names of the crewmen who maintain the planes. Their names and towns are painted on the nose-gear housing on the F/A-18s.

"That one was easy," he said. "I looked at the town and I knew."

Once Baloo identifies the men, he works with them. He's something none of them have ever seen before: a senior enlisted man who is Navajo. The chance to mentor them is something that he takes seriously. It was the mentorship of a teacher that resulted in Baloo joining the Navy.

That trip began 15 years ago, and since then, Baloo's flag has traveled around Cape Horn, through the Panama Canal eight times and from coast to coast.

"I sit down with them and talk to them," he said. "Sometimes they just need someone to talk to. When I go home on vacation, I spend a few days walking around, looking at the employment situation and things like that. I use that in my outreach to them. I tell them that if they have a question here, use the Internet. A lot of time, coming off the reservation, they haven't had access to computers."

Common bonds
In addition to the mentoring, Baloo has created a community of sorts. It's not quite like when he was on the USS Kitty Hawk, when he got most of the Native Americans on the crew together and staged the ship's first Native American powwow on the flight deck, but when he mentors, he does it in Navajo.

The net result?

A small community within the carrier's larger one. Something that gives six sailors something in common. And something that gives their shipmates something to talk about when they watch the film Windtalkers, about the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, for the 30th time.

"It's pretty fun," Joe said. "It makes me feel proud of who I am. I've never had anything like this."

As for Baloo? He has another lead. On the boat back on liberty in Bahrain, he met another Native American, a Rosebud Sioux who told him about another sailor who might be Navajo.

Baloo is energized. The hunt has begun.

War may be imminent, and Baloo is doing his duty. But he's doing something just as important to him. On board one of the largest warships in the world, Chief Yeoman Jeff Baloo is making his own village.

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