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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 31, 2003 - Issue 88


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Indian Women Celebrated as Unsung Heroes

by Linda Hoffman

For six bloody hours during the 1777 Revolutionary War battle of Oriskany in New York, Tyonajanegen fought valiantly beside her husband, an American Army officer.

On horseback like her husband, Tyonajanegen fired her pistol at the British enemy and reloaded her husband's gun for him after he was shot in the wrist.

By many accounts, Tyonajanegen, a member of the Oneida Nation known by only one name, was the first American Indian woman to serve America in the military.

A first-of-its-kind national exhibit will honor her and the thousands of American Indian women who followed her into the U.S. armed services. Today, there are about 2,700 American Indian women in uniform.

These largely unsung heroes in the past, many of whom came up against not only the military's historic restrictions on women but also cultural barriers, will be in the spotlight at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va.

"The stories of Native American military women are a unique and important part of the larger story of women's service to the nation," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women's Memorial Foundation.

Army Spc. Lori Piestewa's parents, Terry and Priscilla "Percy," pose with their grandson, Brandon Whiterock, who turned 5 years old on May 26. Piestewa was killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her daughter, Carla Piestewa, 3, also survives her. Photo by Rudi Williams Attending the exhibit's opening will be the family of Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian who died in an ambush in the war with Iraq. The family has given permission for one of her uniforms to be on display. Piestewa's death also will be remembered with the strewing of rose petals in the memorial's reflecting pool.

Piestewa may be the first female American Indian soldier ever to die in battle. But the Pentagon -- reflecting the lack of much historical scholarship on the contribution of American Indian women -- is not sure if others have fallen in war and is researching the question.

The Women's Memorial, which is collecting oral histories of female veterans of all backgrounds, has assembled pictures and artifacts of an array of American Indian women troops in a project that began more than a year ago. Their history is a rich one.

Among the first were four Roman Catholic nuns from South Dakota who worked as U.S. military nurses in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. One who died of pneumonia there was given a military funeral but was not allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Fourteen American Indian women joined the Army Nurse Corps during World War I.

During World War II, nearly 800 American Indian women served in a variety of roles. Among them was Army nurse Viola Garcia Schneider, a Catawba Indian, who cared for the survivors of the Bataan death camps in the Pacific theater. Edith Anderson Monture, a Mohawk, was a nurse who treated mustard-gas victims in France, and lost hearing in her left ear as a result of German artillery shelling. Sac and Fox tribal member Grace Thorpe, the daughter of famed athlete Jim Thorpe, joined the Women's Air Corps.

American Indian nurses served in MASH units in the Korean and Vietnam wars. As the U.S. military opened more doors to women in the past 20 years, minority groups branched out. Now, American Indian women have graduated from West Point and the other three service academies.

In the first war with Iraq in 1991, Army Sgt. Marcy Cornfield, of the Bear Clan tribe, served in an electronic warfare intelligence unit. During this year's war with Iraq, American Indian women were stationed on at least two Navy aircraft carriers.

At the memorial exhibit, the personal reflections of a half-dozen contemporary women veterans will be featured.

Among them are Iva Good Voice Flute, an Oglala Sioux who was an Air Force airman from 1991 to 1995. She recalls how the Air Force treated her "as an equal," but the elderly male veterans on her Pine Ridge reservation did not.

"One summer I was home on leave for a powwow, and I had wanted to fold the flag at retreat. An elderly male veteran ... told me I could not fold it because I was a woman. I cannot forget the sting of those words. The incident changed me," she said in her oral history.

Through her efforts at changing the attitudes there, the tribe now has a drum song specifically meant for women veterans.

Melinda Cain, a Pueblo-Jicarilla Apache, a second-generation American Indian woman soldier, served as an Army specialist from 1987 to 1990. Her Pueblo relatives believed the military was a man's world, while her Apache male kin celebrated her service. Later, her daughter, Melanie Cain, joined the Air Force.

During her rigorous physical training, Melinda Cain said it was the cadence of traditional native dances that got her through. "The drumbeat of those songs was what I would always hear in my mind as I ran. The drumbeat kept my step in unison with everyone else and gave me strength to keep on," she recalled.

Another woman featured is Cherokee and Choctaw Brig. Gen. LaRita Aragon of the Oklahoma Air National Guard -- the first woman to reach such a top rank. When she was growing up, being an American Indian was "not necessarily a plus" because of the rampant discrimination against them in the Southwest at the time.

The military, however, proved different. "Being a woman has never kept me from begin promoted," and her heritage was viewed as a plus, she said.

"I believe that the military is one of the greatest leveling fields for equality that there is."

Women In Military Service For America Memorial

Voices: Native American Women in the U.S. Armed Forces is the title of a new exhibit opening at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial, May 26, 2003. The opening, which begins at 2:30 p.m., includes a Gathering to honor our Native American warriors and will feature Native American songs, Honor Guards and tribal representatives from across the nation. The event is free and open to the public and will be followed by the Women's Memorial annual Memorial Day ceremony at 5 p.m. RSVPs to 703-533-1155 or 800-222-2294 are requested.

Through text, pictures and artifacts, the exhibit will tell the story of Native American women's service to the nation. Also featured will be the personal stories of six Native American women, including that of Operation Iraqi Freedom hero Specialist Lori Piestewa, a Hopi woman and the first known Native American military woman killed in battle. Several members of Specialist Piestewa's family are expected to attend, as well as Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor. TriWest Healthcare Alliance, a military health care contractor headquartered in Phoenix, AZ, is a major sponsor of the exhibit. The exhibit is a two-phased project, with the opening of the second phase coinciding with the 2004 dedication of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

In announcing the opening of the first phase, retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women's Memorial Foundation, said, "The stories of Native American military women are a unique and important part of the larger story of women's service to the nation. We've been working toward the opening of this project for sometime. When we learned of Private Piestewa's death, we knew we needed to preserve her memory for the American public. We needed to complete the exhibit and make her a part of it. Her heroism and sacrifice were our incentive. When TriWest President and CEO David McIntyre called to ask how he could help, we knew we could make it happen."

For more information about the exhibit or the opening ceremony, call 703-533-1155 or 800-222-2294. The Women’s Memorial, located at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, is readily accessible by Metro (Blue Line) and paid parking is available

More information can be found on the web at:

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