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A Warrior’s commUNITY & Sense of Home

A conversation with three Native Veterans
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A Warrior's Spirit

Serving in the military is significant and meaningful to Native people. In many Native Nations, veterans are regularly honored and recognized at community gatherings, including powwows, as part of the opening and closing activities. Many Native homes have pictures of their sons, daughters, parents and grandparents, who have served or are currently serving in the military, sometimes with several generations of veterans hanging on a wall of family portraits. This veteran lineage and community respect mirror the many Native Nations’ histories of warriors “counting coup”—a significant recognition of bravery and honor, or of allegiance to Indian chiefs fighting wars against and with the U.S. government as citizens moved westward, claiming U.S. territories along the way.

Rupp in uniform

Sloan Rupp (Sisseton Dakota/German)

At 20 years of age, Sloan Rupp (Sisseton Dakota/German) suddenly lost his job in the housing bubble, economic crash of 2008. Feeling uncertain of the future, he contemplated his life’s direction and path. What came to the fore, was his blood memory of cultural survival taught to him by his father and the warrior spirit as a young Sisseton Dakotan.

Dakota warriors had rites of passage where they emerged as part of the warrior society in traditional times. His great grandfather had served in World War II and his grandfather was 1st Sergeant in the National Guard, while a life illness prevented his own father from serving. These role models and his Dakota culture established a belief and understanding that a warrior spirit was a commUNITY role that protected and served the people. Thus, Rupp joined the Army. His cultural upbringing and his desire to give back to the community were greatly influencing him. and He also wanted a type of rites of passage to learn, experience and mature further into adulthood.

Sloan joined the U.S. Army in 2008 and was stationed at Ft. Stewart, Georgia before deploying to Iraq. Upon returning home from his tour of duty, Rupp better realized and experienced that veterans have a place in community and Native American culture. Like the historic past, his Native community had a place for him as a returning warrior. The sense of a warrior society where the people respect warriors and warriors remain memorable are still intact, except now as veterans. Rupp does not experience this depth of acknowledgement for veterans in American culture at-large. He finds the constant, “thank you for your service” as auto-response to “good morning” without genuine interest, connection and community.

When asked what his sense is of “home or commUNITY” as a veteran, Rupp responds, 

“While serving, I learned a new meaning for home. Home is wherever the people I love most are safe and united.”

Baker headshot

Raymond A. Baker (Southern Ute/Navajo)

Veteran Raymond A. Baker (Southern Ute/Navajo) retired from the U.S. Navy in 2015, after a thirty-year career. He joined as a young man wanting to see the world outside of his rural reservation community in the four corners region of the United States of southwest Colorado. He always had military role models from his grandfather who served in the Army during WWII, and two half-brothers who both served in the Army in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well from sailors to Naval leaders. Baker rose through the ranks from deck seaman to eventually retiring as Officer in Charge (OIC) Specialized Research Diving Detachment (SRDD) and Chief Warrant Officer Four, Diver, where he had commanded a worldwide operational command for Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Special Programs and the Submarine Development Squadron Five (SDS-5) Diving/Salvage Officer.

The most significant and meaningful “welcome home” was when the Southern Ute Veterans Association recognized his Navy career. Baker, now a member along with the other volunteers of this association, are frequently asked to present the colors, which is a ceremony that involves an armed services formation. The “colors” refer to a flag. Proper respect should be given to the colors at all times during the ceremony.

In doing so, the Southern Ute Veteran Association has traveled from Hawaii to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., around their own region of communities, to many Boys & Girls Club events, different powwows, and even to the Inauguration event of the new Governor of Colorado. Baker is proud to volunteer his time in this manner, to represent Native Americans in the military, and be a role model in his own tribe.

Baker has led the top 1% of the navy’s best deep-sea divers for all vital missions critical to national security. His leadership has contributed to planning, mobilization of operational assets in harsh environmental locations and he has coordinated efforts with foreign assets, joint armed forces, and Department of Defense (DOD) organizations worldwide with 100% success. As an elite status of Navy divers, Baker was hand selected from 47 CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) divers as a member of the Diving CWO-Advisor Team for all military/DOD operations. To gain a perspective of his expert knowledge and leadership skills, there are about 500,000 sailors in the Navy, about 1,700 Navy deep-sea divers, and only around 50 deep-sea divers become Chief Naval Operations Special Projects officers with assignment. Baker will be working with the military again as part of the Air Force, in the field of diving. Baker says in reflecting upon his Navy career then and now,

“I’m proud to have my skills needed by other services and look forward to working with the Air Force.”

Theodore C. Charles (Navajo)

Theodore C. Charles (Navajo) was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps. (USMC) after serving from 1961 to 1966. Upon completing two years of college, Charles chose to enlist in the USMC. A part of his influence to join was the knowledge that his grandfather had served in the Army as an Army scout and he had two cousins who finished their tour of duty as Navajo code talkers during WWII in the Marine Corps. Charles’s training in the USMC began at MCRD (Marine Corps. Recruit Depot) in San Diego, California before ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) at Camp Pendleton, California. Camp Pendleton is recognized as “The West Coast’s Premier Fleet Marine Force Training Base” of all the Marine Corps bases throughout the world. Upon completion of ITR, he was assigned to A-1-1 Camp Pendleton, California and soon deployed for the Cuban Missile Crisis—a tense, 13-day political and military standoff in 1962 over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. shores. This confrontation was the moment when the United States and Soviet Union came closest to nuclear conflict.

Once that crisis passed, Charles was next deployed to Okinawa E-2-9 designated (E Company 2nd Battalion 9th Marines). Following Okinawa, and just as he was nearing the end of his service, he was next prepared to be deployed to Vietnam as his duty was extended an additional 120 days. As prepared as he was to fight in the Vietnam War, he eventually was not deployed and returned home.

Charles is proud having served in the USMC and says the phrase remains true, ‘once a Marine always a Marine.’ The corps taught him valuable lessons that instilled in him a focus to mean what you do with respect, intention and devotion— never give up no matter how great or small the challenge may be, and the realization that from training to discharge it’s a life or death reality. There is a great and powerful connection Marines have to one another whether having served together or not. To Charles, his comrades in arms are like brothers, one of the family. The best greeting and acknowledgement that he enjoys is not so much ‘thank you for your service’ but ‘welcome back.’ These two words always cheer his heart and he hopes it does the same for other service members. As Charles says,

“If you’re gonna join the Corps, beware the first steps that you put yourself in because many, many Marines have already stepped before you.”

To this day, Native Americans and Alaska Natives continue to serve in the armed forces at a higher rate than any other demographic. According to the Department of Defense, out of 1.2 million men and women on active duty in the U.S. military today, more than 23,000 of them are Native American and Alaska Native1. Ironically, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are one of the most consistent demographics that risk their lives for a government that tried to eradicate our way of life.
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