Native American 'Warriors' Mark Military Service Native-Americans have been influential in the U.S. military for more than 200 years. They assisted George Washington, served during the War of 1812 and have continued to defend the country into the 21st century.
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Native American 'Warriors' Mark Military Service

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Native American 'Warriors' Mark Military Service

Native American 'Warriors' Mark Military Service

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This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

It's Veteran's Day, and here at TELL ME MORE, we'd like to thank all those who have worn the uniform for their service and the families who support them. And speaking of families, later, we are going to hear about some of the distinct challenges of caring for aging and wounded veterans. Now caregiving is hard, but it turns out that caring for wounded and ill veterans has some particular stresses. We'll find out more about that later.

Plus, later in the program, we will find out how the descendants of Thomas Jefferson overcame some serious acrimony to find common ground. That's all coming up.

But first, to our veterans. Now, here at TELL ME MORE, we believe that one of our missions is to share stories about people that you may not normally hear from or about. And a particular group of veterans has a story that we feel has not been told very often: the Native American veteran.

Steven Clevenger is a photojournalist who started following a group of Native American servicemembers back in 2006 when they were headed to Iraq. And he's with us now to talk about his new book "America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq."

Welcome. Thank you so much for coming.

Mr. STEVEN CLEVENGER (Photojournalist, "America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq"): Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Lieutenant Bill Cody Ayon, who served 19 years in the U.S. military with the Navy, now with the National Guard. He's also a police officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He's with us from Deming, New Mexico, and he's also a member of the Southern Cheyenne Nation.

Hello, lieutenant. Thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for your service.

Lieutenant BILL BODY AYON (U.S. National Guard): Thank you. Thank you for having me this morning.

MARTIN: So Steven, let me start with you. You are a veteran war photographer. You've been shooting for, what, three decades now? But what gave you the idea to do this book?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, oddly enough, I found that it's a subject that really hasn't been explored. There have been biographies of famous Native American warriors like Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, but there's nothing that's been done with contemporary warriors, other than "Code Talkers." But then again, that was an examination of their efforts as code talkers. It wasn't an exploration of their warrior culture.

MARTIN: And so one of the things you wanted to lift up was what you thought the - what you called the warrior tradition. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well...

MARTIN: And actually, I should mention you also are an enrolled member of the Osage tribe yourself.



Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, the warrior culture and tradition, it seems to be instilled in the youth. As they grow up, they witness how the warrior, the veteran, is honored by his tribe at dances, pow wows, et cetera. And oftentimes you'll find that the leaders in the tribes are veterans. They've gone through tough times, and the tribe has come to depend upon them for wise decision making, et cetera.

MARTIN: And Lieutenant Ayon, would you talk about that for a minute? You come from a military family yourself.

Lt. AYON: Yes, I do.

MARTIN: How did you become interested in military service?

Lt. AYON: Well, in my cultural background, my upbringing, raised in my home, we were raised to appreciate and respect veterans through cultural events, and I wanted to emulate these individuals that I was around growing up and all the stories that they told and all the things that they've done. And Mr. Clevenger's exactly right. I saw, from a young boy, that the leaders in our world were - the majority of them were veterans, and I wanted to walk down that road as I got older, as well. So I followed in the footsteps of my fathers and uncles and joined the service.

MARTIN: And when you talk about the way that the veterans are revered and honored, can you just talk a little bit about that? And one of the things I think many people will note - if you've ever been to a pow wow, for example -there's always the presenting of the colors, and servicemembers are always, I said, lifted up with, you know, given particular honor. Could you talk a little bit more, Lieutenant Ayon? And then, of course, Steven, I'll ask you to follow up.

Lt. AYON: Well, yes they are. I mean, traditionally, the warriors of any particular tribe were the defenders of the homeland, defenders of their way of life and all the aspects that go with it. So, with that being a first and foremost in our minds, that tradition is carried on today. So when our individuals from each tribe go to serve in the services, as they return home, whether they stay in or they get out, we always remember that, that these are the individuals that still go to protect our way of life. And they're looked at as individuals who deserve respect, and we treat them with such.

So when you go to these events, these cultural events, you will see what you're speaking about, where they honor them and respect them and give them praise.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Lieutenant Bill Cody Ayon. He's a Native-American Navy veteran, a current member of the New Mexico National Guard. He's an enrolled member of the Southern Cheyenne Nation. He is profiled in the new book by Steven Clevenger, a veteran photojournalist and war correspondent who followed a group of Native American servicemembers starting in October 2006. He followed them to Iraq and back.

You know, Steven Clevenger, you asked everybody you profiled in the book a question I wanted to ask you. You said - you asked them if they had any reservations about protecting and defending a country that had not always done right by them. What did they say?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Yeah. I think that's a natural question. Anybody who's the least bit familiar with taming of America or the West, these people, they've been brutalized. They've suffered through genocide, forced onto reservations. I don't have to go in any detail. I'm sure everybody's familiar with it. So I would ask them: Why would you want to risk your life for a country that has done all these awful things to you and your people?

And I got various answers. Lieutenant Ayon's, I'll let him answer that. But others - give his own answer. But others told me that they didn't consider themselves fighting for the government. They were fighting for their nation, for their people, to protect them. Others - one in particular told me that he was a professional soldier, and what happened in the past just didn't matter.

MARTIN: Lieutenant, what about it? How did you answer that question?

Lt. AYON: Well, my answer to that question, and I've answered it numerous times, has always been this: Our people are still tied to this sacred land. It doesn't matter what entity came over and are in charge of the country now. The soil is still sacred to our people, and therefore those that serve in the military, in essence, may not just be defending the United States of America, but we're defending our land where our grandfathers are buried, where our grandmothers are. It's sacred to us. And with this in your mind, that's why you go out and still defend this soil, this way of life that we've kept alive over generation after generation.

MARTIN: And Steven Clevenger, one of the other things I think about the - one of the interesting things about the book, in addition to the war photography, are the before and the after, where you describe and you document some of the cleansing rituals - the rituals that are used to sort of protect the warriors as they go off, and also those that are designed to welcome them home. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, they vary from tribe to tribe. And again, I'm talking about traditionalists. A lot of natives have lost their culture. They've moved away to the cities and they're no longer really connected. Some of the ceremonies, as I said, are performed in private, maybe a medicine man and the soldier. Others are more public, where they honor the veteran or the soon-to-be veteran. The warriors, he goes off. And when they return, again, the ceremonies vary quite a bit. The Navaho have a very - or had a very complex cleansing ceremony, where a warrior would come back to the area they lived in from battle. And he was kept away from his tribe, from his family, for three days and nights while he underwent a cleansing ceremony.

Now, today, that has been cut down to one day, and they immediately, upon their return, they reconnect with their family and their community. But at some point, they normally have a cleansing ceremony, and I was privileged enough to be invited to one of those.

MARTIN: But, you know, one of the things, Mr. Clevenger, I wanted to point up is that you kind of had the feeling that given that there was a kind of method of welcoming people back - which a lot of, you know, people don't have - that you thought that the incidents of post-traumatic stress might be less. But, in fact, you found that not to be the case.

Mr. CLEVENGER: I'm sorry to say that that's right. The ceremonies help, but they don't cure PTSD.

MARTIN: Lieutenant, what are your thoughts about that?

Lt. AYON: Well, I think, in essence, those - the cleansing ceremonies and the welcoming-back ceremonies or the sending-off ceremonies that are specific to whatever tribe you're from, they're not there, in essence, to heal the person from PTSD as much as they are to help the person reintegrate back into being a normal citizen or community member of their tribe.

These ceremonies are very ancient and old, and many individuals that have been involved in combat over, you know, decades - or I should say generations. These ceremonies were designed to help these individuals get back and reintegrated into society. Because, as you know, combat on any level, in modern day or we're even talking in the old days, they had a lasting effect on the individual that was in them, the traumatic experience that they felt.

So Mr. Clevenger's exactly right. They're not designed like a counseling program would be or - to help an individual overcome those aspects. It's more or less to bring them into the tribe, back into their community and let them know, hey, we're here for you. Now...

MARTIN: I take your point. They're designed to - they don't take the place of counseling. I think that that's the point that both of you were making, is that those other services are still needed. So, lieutenant, if you just don't mind my asking, I want to say thank you again for your service, both of you gentlemen. How are you doing?

Lt. AYON: Are you asking me, ma'am? Sorry.

MARTIN: Yeah. How are you doing?

Lt. AYON: Oh, I'm doing great. I'm back running and gunning, doing things for work and staying busy just hanging out with my family and enjoying my time back, ma'am.

MARTIN: Well, welcome home. We're glad you're - you made it back.

Lt. AYON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And happy - well, that's not the right - well, thank you for your service on this Veteran's Day. We thank you for taking the time to join us on what is your day.

Lt. AYON: Thank you, ma'am.

MARTIN: Steven Clevenger, final thought from you, if you will: What would you like people to draw from this book? And I do want to mention that if you want to read an excerpt and see some of the pictures of the work, we have - you were kind enough to give us the opportunity to showcase a little bit of it on our Web site. Just go to, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. So tell - what would you like people to draw from the book?

Mr. CLEVENGER: Well, I think what I'd really like to see happen from this is that those Native Americans who have lost their culture through no fault of their own, that they might be inspired by the book to reexamine it and go back to it. It offers good ways to live your life.

MARTIN: Steven Clevenger's new book is called "America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq." And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. From New Mexico, Lieutenant Bill Cody Ayon. Thank you both, gentlemen.

Lt. AYON: Thank you, ma'am.

Mr. CLEVENGER: Thank you.

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