Within Indigenous societies, women are sacred. They personify Ina Maka, Mother Earth—and all creation. Not only did they give rise to all proud, red nations, they continue to play crucial roles in every native culture and belief system in existence. With a quiet strength and humility few men possess, our women have given of themselves and sacrificed for the greater good for those they love in a myriad ways, for countless generations.
Women may appear soft on the outside, with warm skin and a gentle touch that sooths a crying child or comforts a weary soul; however, they’ve also been gifted with their ancestral grandmothers’ steel resolve. Circumstances may cause them to bend, but the spirit of a woman bathed in wisdom and love is seldom broken. A native woman who is a warrior fights with her heart above all.
Over the centuries, thousands of native women have fought alongside their male counterparts as warriors, soldiers, and leaders. Unfortunately they are rarely recognized, although they’ve demanded no such accolades. A ikce winyan (humble woman) performs her duties because that is who she is, not to satisfy her ego. Yet these female veterans must be venerated. It is our responsibility as their relatives to insure that their stories are shared. Our children should grow up learning about courageous warriors, and respect their journey.
The first documented case of a native woman serving in the U.S. military was during the American Revolution. Tyonajanegen, an Oneida woman, fought against the British with her husband, who was an officer in the American Army. She kept right on fighting after he was shot.
The consummate warrior, Lozen was the sister of the chief Victorio, who led the Chihenne band of the Chiricahua Apaches during the late 1800s. He was quoted as saying, “Lozen is my right hand. Strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield for her people.”
Native women continued to enlist in the U.S. military during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in times of peace, blazing a trail for future women seeking to serve their people and country in the armed services. Many started out as nurses, but through the years they’ve risen through the ranks and become increasingly diversified as to how they serve militarily.
Kristy Lohnes, a Dakota woman from the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota, has been serving in the military for 22 years. She enlisted in the U.S. Army because she had a strong desire to serve her country. She also hoped to learn a new trade and gain worthwhile employment as a result. She’s served during wartime, and has been stationed with NATO in the Netherlands, as well as in Turkey, Germany, and on various bases in the United States. She is currently a Master Sergeant, with no plans to retire.
Rena (Robertson) Bruno, a Gunnery Sergeant, joined the United States Marine Corps because she wanted to make her family proud by serving in the armed forces. She continues to stay in the Marines because she loves her career. She embraces her status as a mentor and role model for other native young women who join the Marines and find themselves in the minority as well as facing new struggles. Rena, also Dakota, served during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was in charge of personal effects for those who were Killed or Wounded in Action and still remembers suffering silent heartbreak while folding the blood-stained uniform of an especially young soldier who was a casualty of battle. Now Rena helps train and make Marines.
Perhaps the most well-known example of a female native veteran is the hero Qotsa-hon-mana (White Bear Girl), Lori Ann Piestewa. A Hopi, Lori was killed in Iraq while trying to save fellow soldiers, two of whom were also enlisted women, by evading incoming fire.
There are many other brave native women who’ve served and continue to serve in the military. I wish I could list them all. Sadly, there’s much less documentation pertaining to native women who’ve served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Furthermore, some female veterans are so modest that they only discuss their military service when asked directly.
This Veteran’s Day, make a point to remember the sacrifice of all veterans, both male and female. Seek out native women veterans and thank them personally. Embrace them with the honor and the prestige they so richly deserve. Many of these women are mothers. All are daughters and granddaughters. Let them know that you see them and appreciate their service. Offer them a smile, a handshake, or a hug, and sincere gratitude. After all, they were willing to lay down their lives for you. They watched over you while you were sleeping. Show respect for the women who have chosen to be shields for their people.