International Indigenous Peoples Day

Billy di waayu
Met la kat la di wil’waatgu
Ganhaada di p’deegu
Seattle di wil dzogu
Linda Booth na di wa noyu
Violet Atkinson-Booth na di niyaayu
Billy Booth na di nits’iit’s’u

My name is Will
I am from Metlakatla, BC/Alaska
My crest is Raven Clan
I live in Seattle, Washington
My mother is Linda Booth, who has past-away
My grandmother is Violet Atkinson-Booth, who has past away
My grandfather is Billy Booth, who has past away

Indigenous Peoples Day, on October 9, 2018, was sanctioned by the United Nations (UN) via resolution 49/213 in December 1994; this resolution is intended to recognize all Indigenous People worldwide. So, this week I find myself reflecting on my decision to enlist in the US Air Force so many years ago. I reflect on the early days during my enlistment, where I learned very quickly it would be safer if I hid my true identity as a Native Man … being able to pass as White made this very easy to do; which was also the catalyst for what was to be become internal turmoil.

For some of this to make sense, we should go over a little History. We all have heard the stories of how Christopher Columbus so-called discovered the Americas. Of course, we all now know that this was a mistake, and he in fact stumbled upon the lands while trying to find a shorter route to Asia. This still has not stopped Americans from celebrating this blunder with Federal Offices closures and “holiday” sales.

However, in 1892 President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation, encouraging Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyages by saying:

On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercise as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.

Later, in 1937, After intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday. Celebrating each year on October 12th, and in 1971, this was changed to the second Monday in October.

Many groups, organizations and Peoples continue to celebrate and protest or reject the idea of celebrating an event that resulted in the genocide of indigenous Peoples and cultures. The idea of honoring the bringing of diseases which further decimated the population of Peoples who had lived on these lands for many generations … in addition to the introduction of the transatlantic slave trade continues to cause heartache to many. In 2018, this day continues to create mixed feelings by those who celebrate or resist; especially among Native Peoples … trying to live in a majority White/Eurocentric world while still holding fast to cultural identity in an ever-changing world continues to be a challenge for many Native Peoples. I for one struggle daily and dealing with how I am perceived and continue to be surprised how people react when they realize I am Native. One example was just yesterday (10/08/2018); while honoring my ancestors in weary my regalia to work, one of our regular delivery drivers had a surprised look when they say me. They asked “Indigenous?”, I replied, and their response was both surprising and offensive … they laughed!

The push to change the way this day in October is viewed continues to gain support as some US States and cities have officially changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, these include Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota, as well as 70 jurisdictions throughout the US (including Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Spokane). In 2002, to acknowledge native peoples and their experience, Venezuela renamed this October day “Dìa de la Resistencia Indìgena” (Day of Indigenous Resistance). In addition, the anniversary of Columbus’ landing is recognized as “Dìa de la Raza” (Day of the Race), celebrating Hispanic culture in many Latin American nations.

So, why, like many Native Peoples, did I join the ranks of those who have served with honor and distinction since the American Revolution War? Before I can an attempt to answer that, you should know that the Indigenous Peoples continue to serve in the US Military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. Furthermore, Natives have served with distinction in every major conflict for over 200 years. In 2012, there were more than 22,000 Native/Alaskan serving on active duty. Many thousands served during World War I, even though they were not considered American Citizens until 1924 (6 years after WWI ended). Over 44,000 served during World War II; yes, they were American Citizens, however, they did not have the right to vote in most of the 50 US states. Not until 1962 did all states allow Natives to legally vote and not until 1965 with the passing of the Voting Rights Act and additional legislature in ’70, 75, and ’82, were all US Citizens were granted voting protections … the first Peoples and they were the last to be considered US Citizens and had the protected right to vote … just Sad.

So, what does this mean for the Indigenous Peoples of North America? How can so many choose to serve in the US Military, support a country that continues to not recognize them, a country that until 1924 did not even recognize them as US Citizens, a country that continues to steal land and resources and refuses to honor its own treaties … how can 172,000 Native American/Alaska Natives serve in the US Military?

Some say that because culturally the indigenous Peoples of the Americas are warriors and have an ingrained need to serve. Some feel this is because of tradition or stories shared of past warriors and the need to live up to expectations of the ancestors. Personally, I joined the US Air Force for 2 reasons, 1) I lost my grants to attend college, and 2) the Air Force recruiter sent me a round trip plane ticket to Anchorage (the US Navy wanted me to pay my way to Anchorage to meet with their recruiter and if I signed, they would pay for my flight back to my village). So, like many others, I too left my small isolated villages looking for something (unknown what that was).

When I chose to enlist, most of my family laughed, I was not the biggest, strongest, fastest, etc.; however, I knew I wanted more … more what, I could not say. I had hoped that I could find more while at college; however, that was no longer an option … so at the age of 17, I got on a plane and headed to Anchorage, Alaska, to meet with strangers to discuss my future. It turned out that many of us from all over Alaska, both Native and non-Natives were searching for something. Here we were, in the big scary city of Anchorage; still winter (April 1985) with snow and ice covering the buildings and ground with more people in just a few city blocks than lived in my entire village. This was not the first time I was going to ask myself “what have I done?”

This was a lot to take in, and now throw in 2 days of tests and discussions about future and goals, and what I wanted and where I wanted to see. Followed by interviews with counselors and psychologist asking questions like:

If you are standing there with a rifle, and an enemy soldier is coming towards you, do you shoot to kill?
Do you have any homosexual tendencies? (btw, if you’ve ever showered with other men, like at a gym, you have homosexual tendencies)

I can still remember how I answered these questions:

Honestly, I cannot answer, I have never been in that situation and I honestly do not know what I would do
Well, in that case, we all have homosexual tendencies; we’ve all been in situations like showering at a gym, and I am guessing while at basic training, I will be training, sleeping, eating, living, showering, etc., with many other men … so, not a fare question as you already know the answer
I was a bit of a smart ass, even at the young age of 17

Then, before I knew it, I had signed the on the dotted line and was standing in a room with a group of other kids with the same blank stare with our right hand raised as we recited our pledge to the US Armed Forces.

What had I done!!! For one, I followed in the steps of my Grandfather, many Uncles and cousins before me … we each chose for different reasons and most returned home to the village with stories of adventures and travels from around the world … to this day, my village still has the largest percentage of enlistees of any other community in Alaska.

Once the reality of the situation sunk in, I realized that this was my only option to learn and grow … sadly; it also meant that for many years I would be forced to leave my cultural identity behind. Being Native was not something that was allowed in the Military. If I was to survive, I had to conform (or rather, embrace my White side). While stationed at my first duty station after basic/tech school, I did receive my first nickname “Chief Stuttering Bear” … you see, I could stutter better than anyone; my stutter was so good, I could not even say my (real) name. About a year later the nickname was shortened to equally offensive “Chief.”

This revised nick name came back to bite one of the Airmen in the ass when he hollered out “F***-You Chief”; just then a Chief Master Sergeant (E-9/CMSgt, also addressed a “Chief”) walked into the Office and all he hears is “F***-You Chief” … the CMSgt’s eye open extremely wide … walked over to the open door and pointed and motioned for the young Airman to “come here!”.

The CMSgt begins to educate the young Airman on proper respect to a Senior NCO (non-commissioned officer); btw, this particular CMSgt was knows to be a very difficult person with no sense of humor. As the young Airman tries to explain the situation; meanwhile I am sitting at my desk trying not to laugh to loud … after a few minutes of watching the Airmen being browbeaten, I spoke up. I explained to the CMSgt the “Chief” was my nickname, given to me by the Airman and fellow co-workers. That is when the fun really began, The CMSgt then (very forcefully) educated the young Airman on proper etiquette when addressing a colleague, especially one who out-ranked them. For a few short moments I felt vindicated and got a little happiness … happiness gone … reality sets back in.

While serving on active duty, I consistently heard “you need to pass” … since I have blue eyes and a light complexion, this should be easy; so, in order to insure my survival, I passed. I hid my true self and fell in line; I was even convinced that my own cultural beliefs were wrong, and I needed to find a church (and of course, everyone had the right church) to become closer to God and save myself from damnation.

For many years I fell for this and I tried many different congregations, taught Sunday School, was a young people’s leader, attended weekly bible studies, and even sang in the choir. This went on for years, however, nothing felt quite right … I spent so much time trying to fit it, I was completely lost. Even though my village completely accepted the teachings of the Anglican Missionaries, giving up their language and culture (although a few still taught our language, songs, dance, and culture in secret) something never felt real. Even after being assigned for a tour in Anchorage, Alaska (my home), I still hid who I truly was for fear of not fitting in.

Not until many years later, after being deployed during the Gulf War and assigned to the Pentagon did I realize what was missing. I needed to be true to myself and accept not only who I am, but that others may not accept and that that is going to be ok. Acceptance of Self was key to self-acknowledgement that I am Gitlaan of the Tsimshian and that is something to be proud of. My own culture provided me with what was missing; although had I not enlisted and traveled the world to visit other cultures and peoples, I may not have come to this realization. Instead, I may still be out there searching.

I cannot speak for other Natives, but for myself, I have great honor for the time I served in the US Military. I had the privilege to meet some amazing people and see wonderful parts of this great planet. For that alone my choice to serve was the correct choice. It opened a world of opportunities to see and visit other cultures and to realize that it is ok to be active within one’s own culture. Like generations before Columbus set foot on these lands, Indigenous Peoples of the Americas had been exploring across the great waters, never losing sight of who they are as a People … why should we start now? So, on October 8, 2018, and every year after, the second Monday in October is Indigenous People Day. I wore my regalia with honor and pride and recognize all the sacrifices made by generations before and in honor of my ancestors.

I am sure that within the borders of the US this date will continue to be a topic of debate. However, I chose to recognize the sacrifices of the ancestors on a Day of acknowledgement of the continued struggles for all to one day receive Federal Recognition, a Day of Pride in who we are as a People!!

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