Sunday, May 22, 2005

Native American Patriots?

Can An Indian Be A Patriot?
by David A. Yeagley
Originally published at March 15, 2001

Since I have been writing these columns about warriorship and patriotism, I've been amazed at the number of supportive letters I have received from American Indian veterans of the United States armed forces.

Patriotism is alive and well in Indian country, especially among vets.

Even so, there are some who claim that a Comanche patriot such as myself is a contradiction. How can a Comanche - or any Indian - love the nation that conquered his people?

"Comanche Patriot?" writes Efiza Jackson. "The Comanches are a Sovereign Nation. Where is Dr. Yeagley's loyalty? He should teach a course on Comanche Treason."

Then there's Bishkoko from Norwalk, CT, who says he is half Choctaw and half black.

"What kind of nonsense could I expect from a Comanche ignorant enough to try to teach patriotism in American schools?" he writes. "Of all `races,' Indians have the highest percentage of service in the armed forces. Less than 20 years after the end of the Indian wars, Choctaw code talkers helped this pathetic country to victory in World War I. What did this great country do in return? It split up Oklahoma Choctaw lands…"

Bishkoko seems to imply that Indian vets were nothing but fools who got taken for a ride.

I take that rather personally. I was not able to serve myself (I tried, but failed the physical, due to a childhood illness). But I'm mighty proud of my relatives who did.

Take my uncle, Raymond C. Portillo, retired Lieutenant Colonel of the United States Marine Corps and a full-blooded Comanche. He led the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment onto the beaches of Okinawa in World War II. He got the Bronz Star, a Presidential Unit Citation Medal, an American Defense Medal, an American Campaign Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, a National Defense Medal, two campaign stars (Guadalcanal and Okinawa), and more.

Bishkoko may call my uncle Raymond a fool. But I wouldn't recommend that he say it to my uncle's face.

He probably shouldn't say it to my Aunt Edna Mae Portillo's face either. She is a retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant.

Then there's my great, great grandpa, Bad Eagle, the only full-blooded Comanche known to serve in the Mexican Army! (He was born in 1839 and died 1906). He was captured down in Mexico, as a young Comanche raider. Later, he was legally adopted by one Capitán Portillo and became a Mexican army reconnaissance officer.

After that, he was "re-captured" by Comanches, and became a band headman of a Kweharena nuhmanuhkan or "chief" of a quahadi (Antelope) clan, his own people.

Finally, he was a professional guide for Dr. Jacob J. Sturm, M.D. Sturm was interpreter in the 1870's for a U.S. Army post called Fort Sill, in Lawton, OK. Bad Eagle (then called Tu-vi-ai), Wild Horse, and Wat-i-bi, were all Comanche "diplomats."

Bishkoko might dismiss all these people as fools. But what has he ever done to compare with them? What does he understand of their pride and bravery or their feelings for the flag?

On one subject, Bishkoko is correct. Indians are vastly overrepresented in the armed forces, relative to their numbers.

The United States Department of Defense recently stated that there are some 190,000 American Indian veterans, representing "the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups."

(Ouch! I'm not sure I like that term "ethnic group." Makes us sound like just another bunch of immigrants, when in fact, this is our homeland. Oh well. It's the thought that counts).

Anyway, the American Indian Veterans Memorial Organization is raising $4 million for a monument in Phoenix, Arizona, at the old Phoenix Indian School, to honor Indian vets. The city and state are in full support.

Why do so many Indians serve?

Part of it, I'll have to admit, is that some Indians just like fighting. We are warriors by nature. To a certain extent, one enemy is as good as another. That certainly seems to be the case in my clan.

But, more importantly, we love the land. We are close to this "American" earth. Our deepest spiritual affections are bound up with this specific landscape, this "purple mountain majesty," and that ineffably sublime American Eagle. Our bones are buried here. This is truly our home. Nobody will ever fight for this land like an Indian.

That is a big part of our value to America. We love this place more than anyone else, and always will. I think white people understand and appreciate that. Too bad Bishkoko doesn't.


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