American Indians proud of their service in military
Enlistment rate is increasing on U.S. reservations
By SCOTT CANON
KICKAPOO INDIAN RESERVATION, KAN. — Around here, the square-shouldered guy with the bemused smile is known to everyone by his tribal name, Sag-Tuk.
Among the Marines he served with for four years and the soldiers in the Army National Guard with whom he will soon return to Iraq, he is Wesley Banks.
That's not to suggest two worlds in conflict. Rather, much of what Sag-Tuk draws from his Kickapoo and Potawatomi heritage led him to become Army Spc. Banks. And the stature he's gained among his tribe as a combat veteran is remarkably authentic.
"I'm a warrior for my people," Banks says. "And people here take that seriously."
Across the country, the journey from reservation to battlefield is a common passage. American Indians sign up at greater rates than virtually any other ethnic group. That's partly because their cultures often give special status to warriors, and partly because economic prospects in many tribal areas remain so bleak.
While American Indians and Alaska natives account for just 0.8 percent of the country's population, they make up about 1.6 percent of those serving in the U.S. military.
That translates to almost 22,000 people in uniform, more than 18,000 sent to Iraq or Afghanistan and almost 3,800 of those deployed today. More than 300 have been wounded in battle in the past six years, and 46 died.
Never mind that America's tribes have a stormy history of relations with the U.S. government and remain locked in treaty disputes to this day. Indian veterans merit special attention at virtually every high plains powwow. They return from battle with the sort of respect that vaults a young man like the 27-year-old Banks to nearly equal footing with tribal elders many years older.
"There's a bond with us veterans and a sense of respect from the community that is reserved for warriors," said Charley Switch, who served in the Army in the late 1950s and now runs the American Legion on the Kickapoo reservation.
Like other Indian veterans, Switch is quick to point out that the tribes sent their men to the military even before the draft extended to them. Veterans speak in frustration about lack of recognition for Indian service. Everybody knows about Navajo code talkers in World War II, they say, but other tribes' service dating back to World War I is often overlooked.
"It's just an honor thing," said Don E. Loudner, the commander of the National American Indians Veterans Association. "It's also an economic thing. But it brings you honor."
Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military recruiters have found it ever harder to find people willing to sign up knowing deployment to a trouble spot was likely. Besides lowered standards and pumped-up bonuses, the wartime environment has produced a change in demographics.
Enlistment among most ethnic groups, especially African-Americans, has declined this decade. But the rate for American Indians has increased.
"Enlistment rates among rural people are higher," she said. "They hunt so they're familiar with holding a gun. You're very likely to be moving to find a job anyway, so you might as well be in the military."
Banks grew up in Topeka and on the Kickapoo reservation, about 35 lonely miles to the north, before heading to a Riverside, Calif., Indian boarding school for his final two years of high school.
By 2000, he was two years out of high school, married with a son and working for the Kickapoo housing authority.
"I got tired of sitting around the reservation," Banks said.
So he signed up with the Marines in October 2000 and before Christmas he was learning how to fire a machine gun. By the fall of 2002, he was headed to Kuwait for what would be a violent trek to Baghdad.
Back at the Kickapoo reservation, drums beat and chants rang out across the parklike powwow grounds in calls for Kitchi Manitou, or the creator, to keep watch over the warrior sent to the Middle East.
"We talk to God, the Great Spirit, whatever you want to call him," said Switch, the veteran and American Legion leader. "I remember with Sag-Tuk, thinking, 'I hope you don't have to kill anybody.'"
Among his Marine buddies, Banks had endured good-natured ribbing about being Indian. But before his unit advanced from Kuwait to Iraq, he pulled out his medicine pouch and prayed, in his Kickapoo way, to the four directions.
"The guys told me to say a prayer for them, too," he said.