Brave Native American and Alaska Native men and women have served well and honorably in the U.S. military. Native peoples have participated in every major U.S. military encounter from the Revolutionary War to today’s conflicts in the Middle East, serving at a higher rate in proportion to their population than any other ethnic group. I believe they have served with such vigor, distinction and patriotism because they are fighting for their sacred land, the land called these United States, which belonged to them first.

The first Native man I ever met was Vick, who served in the Army and was stationed in France like my father. Vick and his German wife lived right across from us on the military base. Vick and his wife were good neighbors who wanted to start a family, and so were kind to us as children. Vick especially liked my baby sister and spent hours playing with her. I was fascinated with him because his skin was reddish bronze; he had deeply black hair and high cheek bones. My mom told me he was a Cherokee Indian. I grew up thinking all Native Americans were kind and had color in their skin too.

The next Native man who influenced me was a poet, like me. Mark Turcotte, whose famous poem "Battlefield" begins with “Back when I used to be Indian,” was an amazing artist. He didn’t stay long in Madison, yet I loved the time I spent talking with him, sharing poetry at events and listening to his stories. He moved away from Wisconsin seeking greener poetic fields, and I understood his need to keep moving and keep writing in places where his voice would be heard and honored.

What I saw for the first time at the Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee recently deepened my understanding of these two earlier experiences. I briefly entered the world of Native American people for two days and I came away better for the encounter. I entered Indian country, where Native people outnumbered everyone else, their languages rang through the air, there were signs posted in many Native languages, their food was sold or shared, and their history was exhibited all over the grounds.

Best of all, I witnessed the honor that was given freely to men and women who served the U.S. in the military, as they were the ones to officially begin the festival. Those elders with white hair came first, some in uniforms, carrying military flags representing their branch of service. Near the end of the line of these veterans were the young Natives who had served in the Middle East. It was a dazzling display of loyalty, and I sat in the stands conflicted by various emotions. The pride of the people was obvious, yet everyone who knows even basic U.S. history realizes how horribly unjustly Native American people have been treated since their first encounters with Europeans and even up to the present day. 

Early this week, the Navajo Code Talkers were honored at the White House by President Trump, but were insulted by the event being held in the shadow of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, who was responsible for killing many Native people. Further evidence of the president's disrespect and disregard was his reference to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas," which was intended as an insult.

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Witnessing their powerful love for this country displayed in a way I have seldom witnessed outside of my African-American community, I wondered how these veterans must feel inside, giving so much and receiving so little recognition of their sacrifices and so little homage for their contributions.

One Native American dancer was dark-skinned, with African features like mine. I have read the long history of Native American and African-American interactions and wanted to respectfully approach him with questions, but realized I needed to sit still, see with my heart, listen carefully and quietly learn since this was my first visit to Indian country. This land we call the U.S. still rightfully belongs to Native Americans, because they are the people who care the most and work the hardest to protect the well-being of the earth. During this national Native American Heritage Month 2017, I publicly thank all the brave Native soldiers who have defended this land.

Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. fabu@artistfabu.com

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Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. fabu@artistfabu.com