Promoting Cultural Awareness: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month
By Capt. Steven Bennett, 354th Medical Operations Squadron
/ Published December 14, 2011
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
November marked the 21st anniversary of the observance of American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. President George H.W. Bush made the proclamation in 1990 and declared 1992 as the "Year of the American Indian" by way of congressional legislation.
The U.S. Military has a long and storied tradition of extraordinary contributions from American Indians and Alaska Natives. From the Revolutionary War where Gen. George Washington enlisted the skills of American Indians to liberate the colonies, to the War of 1812 where Native Americans served on state and continental ships, Native Americans have added to the strong foundation we enjoy today. Their excellence continued in World Wars I and II where nearly 35,000 American Indians fought for their country.
The most famous of these were the Navajo Code Talkers who used their native language to communicate along the front lines. This led to Maj. Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, saying, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima."
The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration that can be bestowed upon service members and is awarded to those few who distinguish themselves through "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States." Since its inception, 27 Native Americans have been awarded the nations' highest honor.
Living in Alaska presents a unique opportunity to learn, first-hand, about Alaska Native culture. Of the 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States, 231 of them are located in Alaska. There are multiple places where Alaska Native culture and history is observed and celebrated. A visit to Pioneer Park, The University of Alaska at Fairbanks' Museum of the North, or the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, can provide great insight into the areas native history and culture.
Recently, Clarence Lee Alexander, the former Grand Chief of the Gwich'in people who reside in northeast Alaska and the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada, was awarded with the Presidential Citizen's Medal. In a ceremony held at the White House in October, Chief Alexander was recognized with the country's second highest civilian honor.
"Clarence Lee Alexander: A dedicated patriot and conservationist, Clarence Lee Alexander has helped lead the charge in protecting the Yukon River Watershed," said President Barack Obama during the ceremony. "In addition to working to save our waterways, he has been instrumental in saving lives through the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, which provides health care to some of the most remote villages in North America. He exemplifies the difference one person can make in preserving our natural resources and cherished traditions for the next generation of Americans. For his work to protect our precious national treasures, the United States honors Clarence Lee Alexander."
This is just one example of the amazing contributions that Alaska Natives and American Indians make to American society. As members of the local society, we must all make an effort to educate ourselves about Alaska Native culture. As ambassadors of the United States Air Force, military or civilian, it is our duty to enhance the relationship we have with the local community with the highest dignity and respect.