The Warriors at Home
They serve in our armed forces in greater percentages than any other ethnic group, volunteering to die for a country that once tried to kill them. So why haven’t Native Americans in Minnesota been getting the benefits they deserve?
(page 1 of 3)It wasn’t the dying that bothered Duane Columbus. He was proud to go in a hail of machine-gun fire, blown to bits by a land mine, or impaled by bamboo spikes. He is a warrior, after all, an ogitchedaw, as the Ojibwe say—one who stands up for the people. That’s why he had volunteered for the Marines and got himself shipped to the front lines of Vietnam. He was prepared for anything, and ready to meet the Great Spirit.
He almost did die, too, shredded by shrapnel in his back. He was flown out of Vietnam by a medevac, never to run, jump, or sleep quite the same way again. He could live with that. What he minded—what still makes him tremble and clench his fists—was returning to his reservation in northern Minnesota, a place so isolated by geography, economics, and racism that he sometimes regretted coming home at all. “I wished I was back in Vietnam,” he says, “that’s how bad it was.”
Columbus faced the jeers of both the anti-war contingent and the rednecks. He had nightmares, flashbacks, depression. And so he drank, and hated himself. He moved to the Twin Cities and got married, but the marriage lasted less than a year. Finally, he got arrested, on a DUI, which prompted him to sober up. He moved to Bemidji and spent 15 years working as a custodian and maintenance man. But he wasn’t done being angry, and was starting to feel foolish about the pride he’d placed in his war wounds. “I was pretty mad at the government, thinking about not being able to do what I could before,” he says, his long hair now starting to gray, the fading tattoos on his forearms resembling impressionistic watercolors. In all that time, he received almost nothing from the government in return for his service.
For risking life and limb, all former U.S. military personnel are offered an array of benefits through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), from health care to home loans, disability pensions to education funds—“to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan,” as the VA’s mission statement says, quoting President Abraham Lincoln. But getting them can be a battle in itself. Veterans must apply for benefits, filling out mounds of paperwork to prove, for instance, that their cancer is the result of military service. VA workers called “raters” then determine, like insurance companies, how much the government is liable for each health condition, offering anywhere from 10 percent to 100 percent coverage. Like petitions for asylum, VA applications are often rejected for lack of evidence and multiple appeals are common—ongoing skirmishes in a war against one’s own government.
Photos by Mike Mcgregor
Indians have been called America’s invisible veterans. The Navajo Code Talkers, U.S. Marines whose secret messages in their native language may well have turned the tide of World War II in America’s favor, weren’t awarded Congressional Gold Medals until 2001. Ira Hayes, a Native American who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, wound up an alcoholic and froze to death at 32 in a ditch on his Arizona reservation. At his funeral, a fellow flag-raiser eulogized, “He had a little dream in his heart that someday the Indian would be like the white man.” More than 50 years later, native warriors return from Iraq and Afghanistan to reservations more neglected by the government than the countries in which they served, and equality can seem a mere dream even now. Yet who or what is to blame? Racism? Politicians? The warriors themselves?
The warrior ideal, of brave Native Americans dutifully defending their tribe, did not die with Crazy Horse or Geronimo or, for that matter, John Wayne movies. The proof is at the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum, about a quarter-mile from the reservation’s Fortune Bay Resort Casino in Vermilion, where a significantly large space known as the Wall of Honor pays tribute to the tribe’s many veterans. The Bois Forte Reservation, the exhibit declares, has supplied more personnel to the U.S. military, per capita, than any other community in the country. It’s a claim that is as impossible to verify as it is conceivable. There are only about 675 band members presently living on the reservation, while the Wall of Honor features the photographs of 216 Bois Forte veterans going back to World War I—before Native Americans were even granted U.S. citizenship, in 1924. And band members estimate the wall currently represents only about a third of the true number of warriors.
A large glass case in the exhibit, honoring band members currently serving in Iraq, is flanked by the U.S. flag and the Bois Forte flag—a reminder of the dual citizenship of sorts that tribal members always live with, what they call “walking in two worlds.” There is no paradox or irony, the way Native Americans see it, in enlisting with government forces that once tried to kill them off. They are simply defending their land, the way they always have, no matter whose flag currently flies above it.