Native Americans have a long and proud history of serving in the U.S. military from the scouts who fought with George Washington in the American Revolution, to the Navaho code talkers of World War II, to the first American woman soldier killed in Iraq, Hopi tribal member Lori Ann Piestewa. More Native men have served in America's armed forces than any other single racial or ethnic group. For some, military service embodies the strong warrior tradition of many tribes. For others, it's a way out of the extreme poverty of most reservations. But after the fighting's over, each one walks a difficult road, one that requires special sensitivity to navigate.
It was called "A Gathering of Healers." Fifty members of the Veterans Administration who met in Custer, South Dakota to learn about Native traditions and history, to better help Native American veterans. Yankton Sioux tribal member Faith Spotted Eagle told them that when Native combat vets come home, they experience the same Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as other soldiers, but a history of racism and discrimination makes it worse. "A lot of Indian people, aboriginal people, native people have stacked grief and trauma," she said. "And, so, when the vets went off to war, the last layer may have been the war, but underneath that are layers of other traumas, like the boarding school system, the racism. So if you just deal with the war, you're not cognoscente of all the other hurts and losses that have been encountered in our culture."
Faith Spotted Eagle says because of this, many Native soldiers who go into battle suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - PTSD - before they even enter the combat zone.
"What they actually have is, of course, is PTSD, and trauma leads to drama, there's much drama in Indian Country, with much of the anger and the collateral violence that comes out as a result of the hurt and, when people teach anger management, it's not appropriate because we don't even go to anger," said Faith Spotted Eagle. "We go straight to rage."
Unlike many non-Native combat veterans, American Indians have almost always been welcomed home by their communities as heroes, even after the unpopular war in Vietnam. Still, they carry the horrors of their combat experiences with them and, as Faith Spotted Eagle explained, that can affect the way they deal with others, including health care providers.
"The most important thing to recognize is that when the rage comes up, it really has nothing to do with them personally," she points out. "It has everything to do with us, and what we've experienced."
Lakota George Amiotte is a former Marine who served two combat tours in Vietnam. He uses information about Native cultures from the Medicine Wheel to the traditional belief in the circle of life to help health practitioners understand more about the Native combat veterans they may encounter. Ultimately, Mr. Amiotte says, his goal is to teach people to understand what someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is experiencing by first looking at themselves.
"We all have it in one way or another. If you've ever experienced a traumatic event in your life, you've got PTSD, a fear, a negative emotion that might scare and you wonder where it's coming from and you don't know why," he said. " 'I'm feeling this way, but I don't know why'. That's what it is, it's unresolved fear."
Confronting her own history of trauma during the four-day conference helped Mary Ramirez understand more about the Native culture.
"It has made me more aware and more passionate that we need to be aware of what our patients are feeling," she said. "They are veterans, they are different."
Lakota George Price fought in Vietnam and now works for the Veterans Administration. He says attending the conference helped him learn as much about his own PTSD as how to help other Native vets who suffer with it.
"Even though you might feel that you're the only one ever put in a particular situation, that many thousands of people share your experiences and that the more that you can try to share this and talk about it, the better off you're gonna be," he said.
The health care providers received instruction in everything from the warrior concept of not showing pain to traditional etiquette, such as showing respect by not looking directly at someone you're speaking to. But, according to George Amiotte, there's one lesson that everyone needs to learn in dealing with returning veterans regardless of their race.
"Respect them...that's basically it," said George Amiotte. "Respect them, be there for them, love them. I know how they feel. It's not a good feeling. It's a horrible experience. You don't know what tomorrow's gonna bring, a lot of the worrying about surviving. Worrying about going home as a casualty. What is, you know, what's my parents thinking about. I mean, all that, you know, just kind of consumes you. And then you've gotta remain in the present worrying about who's shooting at you. Is that a civilian? eew...Being a warrior's a tough job."
After the four-day workshop, the participants were welcomed into the Morning Star Healing Society, strengthening the traditional support network for 21st century warriors.