'America's First Warriors,' Fighting In Iraq Photojournalist Steven Clevenger has been covering wars for almost four decades — from his early days in Cambodia, to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, Clevenger began documenting the role of Native American soldiers in the war in Iraq. His book is called America's First Warriors.
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'America's First Warriors,' Fighting In Iraq

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'America's First Warriors,' Fighting In Iraq

'America's First Warriors,' Fighting In Iraq

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Photojournalist Steven Clevenger, a war correspondent for many years, decided to accompany Native American soldiers headed to Iraq. He took pictures and interviewed Apache, Navajo, Osage, Pueblo and others before, during and after their tours. The book he created is called "America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq." You can see some of his photographs in a slideshow at NPR's Picture Show blog. That's at npr.org.

And today, we'd like to hear from Native American soldiers in our audience. Tell us about your experiences. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Steven Clevenger is a registered Osage and joins us now from our bureau in Dallas, Texas. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. STEVEN CLEVENGER (Photojournalist; Author, "America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq"): Well, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And is your...

Mr. CLEVENGER: Appreciate you having me.

CONAN: And is your Indian heritage the reason that gave you the inspiration to pursue this story?

Mr. CLEVENGER: No. It was more because I lived in New Mexico off and on for many years. And you cant help but get involved in the Native culture there.

CONAN: You wrote that one of the things that set Native Americans apart from other U.S. troops though is the warrior culture. How so?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, it's a big part of their culture. I'm talking about traditionalists here, people who still maintain their culture. And it is a big part of the traditional beliefs and the warrior is honored in their culture. And he's expected to perform his duty. And when he returns from war or service, he is honored. And he's also expected to become a leader in the community.

CONAN: You also wrote about some of the interesting ceremonies and practices that Native Americans have that many of us are not familiar with, including there was one man you described set out with a medicine bundle.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Yes. Well, this was a World War II veteran, a Navajo. And his leaving the reservation in western New Mexico I think may have been the first time he was actually off the reservation. And he ended up in Europe. He participated in the Omaha landings. And then later, he was cut off in the Battle of Bulge.

But before he left, his grandfather, who was a warrior and survived the long walk that the Navajos had to undergo, made him a medicine bundle of - corn pollen was in there and also a small, white feather from a live eagle. And he was told that should he be captured, all he had to do was to throw this white feather up in the air and he'd be able to escape. Luckily, he didnt have to use that.

And he told me that as he hit the shores of Omaha, the bundle became soaked but he still held onto it and kept it throughout the war. And when he returned to New Mexico, his grandfather took the bundle and emptied the contents around their Hogan(ph), their home, to bring good medicine to the area to people who live there.

CONAN: You also described how different tribes offer warriors different protective ceremonies before they leave for war.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Yes. Not all tribes used the medicine bundles. For example, the Osages, they offer dances and honor the people who are going off. And they do the same for when they return.

CONAN: Because the protections have to be taken off?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well not so much with the Osages, but with the Navajos, that's true.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. CLEVENGER: They aren't - in the ancient times, the warriors returning from battle, they were kept away from the other members of the tribe. And they had to undergo several days and nights of various purification ceremonies to eliminate that bad, those bad feelings that they may have picked up during their battle experience. But today that's been drastically reduced to just one evening of ceremonies given by a medicine man. And sometimes, if they feel its necessary, theyll have a dance.

CONAN: And how many of these traditionalists to what degree do these traditionalist' beliefs still holds way?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, you get a mixture. There's a lot of people who are in the Native American Church, and they also hold on to their traditional beliefs. And I assume theyre in other Christian churches. But, again, the traditionalists, they continue to practice their prayers and such. One of the men in the book, he told me how every morning he had a shift that allowed him to be up when the sun came up. He would say a prayer and sprinkle a little corn pollen in the air.

CONAN: One of the questions that you raised, is why should the people who have suffered so terribly at the hands of the U.S. government defend that government?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, that was one of the questions I asked everyone, and I got a variety of answers. Some people said, well, Im a soldier, what happened in the past no longer matters. Theres that they werent really fighting for the U.S. government, they were fighting for the nation, they were fighting for their people, they were fighting for their way of life.

CONAN: It is also interesting that many of these people are obviously from tribal cultures North American tribal cultures. Iraq is, in many places, a modern society, but in other places, it is very tribal too.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Yes. The men and women that I was with in Iraq though, they had the duty of guarding the detainees. So they werent going outside of the wire to really integrate themselves with the locals. Of course, they had a lot of close contact with the prisoners.

CONAN: And they these were men and women from National Guard units?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Yes. Our National Guard unit out of Rio Rancho in New Mexico. Rio Rancho is just a little bit above Albuquerque. But because theres such a small population in New Mexico, these people in particular, the natives, they came mostly from western New Mexico. The majority of them were Navajos. And there were a number of Pueblo peoples as well.

CONAN: And were happy to report that the unit arrived back home intact.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Yes, they did.

CONAN: Lets see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Were talking with Steven Clevenger. His book is Americas First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq. 800-989-8255. Wed like to hear from Native American warriors about their experiences. Give us a call. And send us an email, talk@npr.org.

I guess well begin with Sam(ph). Sams with us from St. Francisville in Louisiana.

SAM (Caller): Correct.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

SAM: Im neither Native American nor have I ever served in the armed forces, but Id like to ask the author how Native American servicemen try to reconcile the U.S. governments past persecution of Native Americans while serving the very armed forces that carry out those policies. How do they kind of get around that conflict?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, as I said, some of them dont think about it. They say what happened in the past is in the past. Others have told me that they werent fighting for the U.S. government, but they were fighting for their nation, for their land, for their people, for their way of life. Now these people Im talking about, they are traditionalists. And most of them do live on reservations, although there are exceptions.

CONAN: So it didnt seem to be a big issue for them?

Mr. CLEVENGER: No. Not really.

CONAN: All right. Sam, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

SAM: Thank you very much, Mr. Conan, for letting me be on your show.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks for listening.

And as you you talked to them before they went and then during their tour and then after they came home. Did they suffer the same kinds of post-combat problems that so many we hear about so many people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Unfortunately, a lot of them do. My thesis, when I went into this project, was that because of the support from their people and the various ceremonies that they would go through before and after, that possibly they could reintegrate into society more easily than non-natives. But I found that not to be true. The ceremonies I was told although they do help, but its not a cure-all. They still have problems. And, you know, there are resources from the V.A., but theyre limited. And as far as the Indian Health Services go, they are very limited.

I was talking to a psychiatrist at the Indian Hospital in Santa Fe and they have two people who worked with the mental service mental health services for a total of 50,000 people in their area.

CONAN: Thats quite thats a its a difficult proportion.


CONAN: Lets see if we can go quickly to this is Rodney(ph). Rodney, with us from Daly City in California.

RODNEY (Caller): Good afternoon. I just wanted to tell you guys you caught my attention because last year, my father was 87 and - a Choctaw - died. And when I was going through all of his things - my father was a very secretive person. And we discovered all sorts of wonderful things about his service in the military using the Choctaw code talkers. And also, he had prepared for me before he died, a medicine bundle which he gave to me. And I also found his, which he had had for, I guess, my for his whole life. But none of us knew about this stuff. It was just really, really interesting to find these things and look at it, and I'm glad you guys are talking about it.

CONAN: So your father was one of the Navajo code talkers who served in the Pacific?

RODNEY: He was Choctaw.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

RODNEY: And I'm not really too clear on the details of how the Choctaws were involved in that, but apparently he was - they were using him because of his understanding of Choctaw, the same way the Navajo code talkers were. That's my understanding anyway.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the call. And we're glad you found out some of your dad's past.

RODNEY: Well, thank you.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Yes, there were other code talkers besides the Navajo. I know that some code talkers were used in World War I, I believe. And then as a listener noted the Choctaws, they - I believe they were participated in Europe, but I'm not certain about that.

CONAN: Native American speakers used to speak to each other across open radio circuits on the belief that the Germans and Japanese would not be able to understand them. And as I understand, it worked perfectly.

Mr. CLEVENGER: With their code. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Steven Clevenger, thank you very much for your time today and good luck with your book.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Steven Clevenger's book is called "America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq." You can see a slideshow of his photographs at npr.org, at our Picture Show blog. And he joined us today from our bureau in Dallas. Up next, your letters.

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