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Native Americans’ service in U.S. military focus of ‘The Warrior Tradition’ documentary on PBS

Why would American Indian men and women put their lives on the line for the very government that took their homelands?

“The Warrior Tradition,” a one-hour documentary that will air on Veterans Day (Nov. 11) on PBS, tells the stories of Native American warriors from their points of view about their service in the United States military.

The film shares the astonishing, heartbreaking, inspiring and largely untold story of Native Americans serving in the U.S. military.

Stories of service and pain, courage and fear, are shared in the film that was co-produced by WNED-TV (Buffalo/Toronto) and Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why did you join a white man’s war? They weren’t nice to you.’ That may be so, still, this is our land,” Peter MacDonald, Dine’, Navajo Nation, U.S. Marine Corps, said in the film.

Navajo Marine code talkers on duty at Bougainville, Solomon Islands, in 1944. (NARA photo)

During World War I, not all Native Americans were even citizens of the United States, and couldn’t be drafted, yet more than 12,000 Indian men volunteered. Even in Vietnam, an unpopular war, 90 percent of the 42,000 Native people who served were volunteers.

“That’s the irony,” said Patty Loew, member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and professor of Journalism at Northwestern University. “Here’s a government that has, at various times, tried to exterminate or assimilate Native Americans, destroy their culture, take their land, and yet here are Native Americans serving in the highest percentages of any race or ethnicity relative to their numbers in the US military.”

The roll call of valor is endless. But there’s more to the story than heroism. And there’s more than one way to be a warrior.

Native American women reservists with the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune in 1943. (NARA photo)

More than a dozen Native American veterans appear in the film, having served in Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army National Guard. They each have their own reasons for having served and for how the warrior tradition played a role in their lives.

Among those who share their stories are veterans of wars and conflicts ranging from World War II to ongoing deployments in the Middle East.

They are members of tribes from all over the United States, including the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, the Mississippi Choctaw, Navajo Nation, and the Menominee, among many others.

“The Warrior Tradition” was directed produced by Lawrence Hott and features music from award-winning Native American musicians Dawn Avery, Steven Rushingwind, Kevin Locke and R. Carlos Nakai.

A community and educators discussion guide and other resources about the documentary are available at pbs.org/wned/warrior-tradition/resources/.

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