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?

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

Many Native American veterans live outside the benefits loop. Though more Indians serve in the military, as a percentage of population, than any other community—an estimated 25 percent as opposed to 2 or 3 percent of Americans overall—only about half of them, at least in Minnesota, receive their rightful benefits. The situation has begun to take a toll: Native veterans who could be getting free treatment at VA facilities are instead cared for at understaffed reservation clinics, even as the war on terrorism sends more soldiers home with injuries. As a result, many native vets are going without the surgeries and treatments they need, while millions of dollars in federal benefits are being left on the table.

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.


The warrior tradition, if hardly a relic, is also not an exaggeration of cowboy-and-Indian movies—it is a very real reason why so many Native Americans enlist. In mainstream society, typical rites of passage may be sex, or hunting, or going to college; for many Indians, it’s going to war. “We want to be like our fathers,” says Columbus. Indeed, during World War II, every eligible man on the Grand Portage Reservation in northern Minnesota reportedly enlisted. As Ernie Steele, who recently returned to Bois Forte after Navy service in the Persian Gulf, puts it, “It’s like you’re not really a man until you’ve been in the military.”

Modern-day warriors are often sent off with eagle feathers (spiritual aids in their safe return, in whatever form that is) and a tiny leather bag—a medicine pouch—filled with healing herbs, roots, and sacred tobacco. There may be a feast in their honor. And when they return, they are celebrated in annual veterans’ powwows and invited to join the band’s color guard, a corps of veterans whose prestigious duties include leading processions into powwows and offering 21-gun salutes at the funerals of fellow vets. Warriors, even today, are the toast of the tribe.

There are other reasons why Native Americans enlist, of course, chiefly financial. Steele signed on mostly for the college money. “I wasn’t going too many places,” he says. “I had a daughter, was just out of high school. [The military] was kind of one of the last resorts.” But no matter why they enlist, the fact remains that large numbers of Native Americans serve and often volunteer for the deadliest duties. They are over-represented in the Marines, the infantry, and special forces.

Frank Bowstring, a 44-year-old soldier with the Minnesota National Guard and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, embodies these twin motivations of opportunity and obligation. “If I didn’t join the military, I don’t know where I’d be,” he says. With his regulation flattop and muscular, compact form, Bowstring seems as streamlined as a bullet, and he has served with a similarly unrelenting sense of purpose. In Afghanistan, where he removed land mines during his last tour, he was a father figure to the younger members of his unit, who affectionately called him “Chief.” He is now mulling whether to rejoin his unit, likely in Iraq, when they ship out again in the spring. He’s leaning toward going, despite already serving many years in the Air Force, despite his wife and several of his six children still at home near Cass Lake. His oldest son, after all, is already in Iraq as a Marine. “I just can’t quit,” says Bowstring. “If I quit, somebody else in my unit could get hurt, and I just can’t let them down.”

Photo by Mike Mcgregor

If Bowstring seems like a model warrior, he is also a fortunate one. He returned from the battlefield essentially unharmed, and he has quickly tapped into the benefits he’s owed. In fact, the Leech Lake band hired him last year to locate other Leech Lake vets and help them get their VA benefits—a move the tribe made ahead of a similar statewide program initiated by Governor Tim Pawlenty’s administration earlier this year.

But these native veterans have not been easy to find. For many, pride has led to isolation. “They’re very humble, and they don’t want to look like they’re going back [to the government] and asking for something more,” says Roger Aitken, a Leech Lake band member from Bemidji and head of the Minnesota Indian Veterans Association. Because Indians have been stereotyped as welfare cases, Aitken explains, many native vets believe that asking for benefits “might put them in a bad light. They are always conscious of that.” Phyllis Boshay, an elder on the Bois Forte Reservation, remembers occasional trips to Duluth to collect VA benefit checks on behalf of a relative’s husband, who had died in World War II. “People standing around would say, ‘There’s those Indian ladies that get money from the government,’” she recalls. Some returning native soldiers literally retreat to the woods—“into the foxhole,” as Columbus puts it—and ask for nothing from nobody. Even if, as sometimes happens, it kills them.

Until now, few people have come knocking at the foxholes. Each of Minnesota’s 87 counties employs a county veterans service officer (CVSO), charged with helping veterans receive their rightful benefits. But there is little consistency: Some CVSOs work part-time or even quarter-time; some are highly motivated, others less so. “By and large, the county veterans service officers knew the Indian veterans were there and either didn’t know how or didn’t make an effort to reach them,” asserts Aitken. “It just didn’t happen.” One Indian veteran tells of a CVSO who had a line drawn around a northern reservation on a map in his office—“That’s where I don’t go,” the officer reputedly said.

Vern Morrison, a Bois Forte band member who signed up for the Marines at age 17, in 1968, sought help when he returned from Vietnam for the flashbacks and other signs of posttraumatic stress disorder he was experiencing. “There was no communication [from the VA],” he says. As for the occasional VA events known as Stand Downs, in which needy vets are offered everything from health care to haircuts for free: “Shit, they didn’t tell us about that. County agent never mentioned it,” Morrison says.

Like Bowstring, Ernie Steele was hired by his band to help its veterans, and he has heard many stories like Morrison’s. “There was a lot of racism before,” he says, “and that has kind of shied away a lot of veterans because they think no one wants to help them.”

Nothing, of course, in the history of relations between Native Americans and the U.S. government would have given Indian vets the impression that help was there for the asking. Many natives have painful memories of the boarding schools where Indians were sent until the 1950s and were beaten for practicing their traditions. (Ironically, almost all of the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II were forbidden from speaking their languages while growing up in boarding schools.) Still fresh are the scars from so-called adoption programs, run until 1978, in which children were forcibly removed from native homes in order to assimilate them into mainstream culture. Even the venerated Indian honor guards were born as much from rejection as pride—the region’s first native corps, as Aitken recalls, formed only about 25 or 30 years ago after an Indian family with a long military history was denied the presence of the local American Legion honor guard at a funeral.

By the 1960s, Indian tribes were prepared to go their own way, the expectations of mainstream society be damned. The American Indian Movement, which formed in Minneapolis in 1968, preached native empowerment—the reassertion of sovereignty and cultural differences—prompting reservations to circle their wagons, as it were, and take care of their own. For four years in the 1980s, the Red Lake Reservation famously required non-band members doing business on the rez to apply for band-issued passports. The isolation experienced by native veterans, in other words, is partly self-imposed. “It’s been a two-way street” regarding veterans benefits, says Kevin Leecy, chairman of the Bois Forte Reservation Tribal Council. “The native people haven’t sought them out.”

It’s become a standoff: Indians don’t ask, the government doesn’t tell—the assumption is that native veterans receive all the care they want on the rez. At least that’s been the excuse. “A lot of CVSOs felt like they didn’t need to help them,” says Steele. “‘You get your free health care up there,’ they would say. ‘You get money for this and that. Why do you need VA benefits?’”

The reasons are becoming clear: Native veterans are more likely to be alcoholics, to have gambling problems, and to experience anxiety than the general population. Because they volunteer for the most dangerous duties, they are also more likely than other vets to have posttraumatic stress disorder, and are probably not being treated for it. In fact, according to a recent VA survey, Native American veterans are the most likely group to be forgoing any medical treatment at all.


At one time, wounded warriors may indeed have found all the healing they needed among their families and the forest. At Bois Forte, each family often had its own medicine lodge, where remedies were provided by medicine men or women. Boshay, for one, believes it worked—she watched relatives recover from wounds at the hands of healers. “The old generation didn’t need Western medicine,” she says. “But the new generation isn’t as knowledgeable about Indian medicine.”

Most Bois Forte veterans today seek care at the band’s tiny health clinics. The main clinic is in Nett Lake, the largest of the reservation’s two villages, located about 80 miles northwest of Ely. The settlement seems a humble clearing in the vast fir forest bordering the Boundary Waters wilderness, an almost impenetrable hinterland that inspired French voyageurs to call the band “the people of the thick woods” or “hardy people of the woods.” Only a few years ago, the main highway through the reservation remained unpaved and it wasn’t until this year that the area received cell-phone service, which is notoriously spotty. To track people down, it’s still easiest just to drop by their homes.

“We’re about 10 to 20 years behind what’s happening in the Twin Cities,” says Cathy Chavers, who handles the billing for veterans’ services at the health clinic. The band is proud of the small Nett Lake clinic, which sees some 3,000 patients a year (most without health insurance) and the hallways are peppered with posters promoting Native American health care—“Drumming is my anti-drug,” reads one. But the handful of doctors, dentists, and assistants have often been overwhelmed. They work in tiny examination rooms and lack even an x-ray machine.

Veterans come here, though, partly because they aren’t enrolled for the benefits necessary to visit a VA clinic or hospital, and partly because it’s simply more convenient. It can take a month for prescription drugs from the VA to reach the rez, Chavers says. And getting to a VA clinic or hospital can be a long, difficult journey. The main VA facilities are in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. Even the nearest outpatient clinics of substantial size are an hour and 20 minutes away, in Virginia. “We’re 65 miles from just about everything,” Chavers says. “Heck, to see a movie, you have to drive 38 miles.”

Many on the reservation lack transportation, gas money, or both, so the clinic marshals volunteer drivers to take patients to out-of-town appointments. Yet some veterans actually end up walking or hitchhiking hundreds of miles from the reservation to VA facilities, even to St. Cloud. “A lot of them do walk,” says Steele, “and a lot of guys”—the frail or infirm—“can’t make the trip at all.”

Increasingly, native veterans are finding these conditions unacceptable. They note that the government spends billions to help indigenous peoples in Iraq and Afghanistan while Indians languish in Third World conditions. Ensuring that warriors receive VA benefits seems like the least the government can do. A couple of years ago, a group of Indian vets from northern Minnesota, including Duane Columbus, decided to take matters into their own hands, crisscrossing the state to help other native vets apply for benefits. Columbus had only recently begun receiving his own rightful benefits, after a Gulf War veteran helped him reapply—an increase of nearly 90 percent, from the bare minimum in compensation to full disability pay. It was enough that he could quit his custodial job and devote himself full-time to advocating for Indian vets.

Columbus and other native vets eventually contacted Clark Dyrud, head of Minnesota’s Department of Veterans Affairs, and invited him to visit reservations and observe the conditions. Dyrud, a gregarious and sandy-haired Scandinavian, immediately sympathized and earned the vets’ trust, receiving an honor blanket from the White Earth band and a nickname: Zhimaaganish. (He was told it meant “Soldier Boy,” but he still looked it up in an Ojibwe-English dictionary he had bought for his tribal visits, just to be sure it wasn’t a joke.) As a result of these reservation roundtables, Dyrud asked for—and received—state funding this year for his department to set up a system of tribal veterans service officers (TVSOs) who will work on Minnesota reservations and seek out native veterans at powwows or at their homes—“physically track them down,” Dyrud says—and guide them through the benefits process.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs has had success with other minority outreach efforts: A new program to help African-American vets in the Twin Cities pulled in nearly $1 million in federal benefits its first year. And there are reasons to believe the TVSOs will help. They will have offices on the reservations, and will almost certainly be Indians. As Leecy says, “There’s an old Indian saying: ‘You can’t really know a person until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.’ The tribal service officers have walked that; the CVSOs didn’t even have moccasins.”

But no one expects the problems to disappear quickly. Ernie Steele, who in effect has been acting as a TVSO for a year at Bois Forte, had so few leads at first that he began by simply noting names on the Wall of Honor, not knowing if the soldiers were even still alive. There is no guarantee that native warriors will want to be found. And it is still a long drive—or walk—to VA facilities.

Many vets from northern reservations travel to Canada instead, where indigenous customs are more widely practiced, to acquire natural remedies. When they do want doctors, they prefer tribal clinics and not just because they’re nearby—cultural differences can derail encounters between Native Americans and non-native doctors. Many Indian men are reserved and uncomfortable talking about their problems, says Chavers. Even the native habit of not looking strangers directly in the eyes can provoke miscommunication. “The doctors think, ‘Look at me, I’m talking to you!’” she says.

The cultural divide is real, and no government program has ever changed it—the past century’s attempts, one could argue, have just made it worse. Yet there is a sense, among the progressive, new generation of tribal leaders at Bois Forte, Red Lake, and other Minnesota reservations, that the TVSO program has to work. To improve their people’s lot, these leaders are determined to bridge the cultural divide by educating lawmakers and the public on Native-American issues. The TVSO initiative, likely the first program of its kind in the country, is a landmark of Indian-government cooperation. If it fails, the potential for more such progressive policymaking is placed at risk. Now, as before, Indians’ hope for a better future lies with their warriors. Only this time, it is the warriors who need saving.

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.