When talking about United States military veterans, there is a group that often gets overlooked–that of American Indian and Alaskan Natives. In fact, growing up, I don’t recall learning too much at all in school about their rich history and culture. Their story would only be a small part of the chapters on Christopher Columbus, the colonization of the New World and the nation’s westward expansion. Even today, I hear the debates about the naming of sports teams, and it seems to me that some people have forgotten that they are talking about American citizens and not some abstract concept. I think, as a nation, we need to pay tribute to American Indian and Alaskan Native veterans–all 150,000 of them–and say, “Thank you for your service.”
The Veterans History Project (VHP) seeks the stories of all veterans who served in the United States military, and encourages participants to self-identify their race or ethnicity on required forms for research purposes. VHP’s archive, accessible at www.loc.gov/vets, now includes more than 95,000 collections, many of which are from veterans who represent under-served and under-recognized populations, including American Indian and Alaskan Natives.
Marcella Le Beau is one of them. In 1943, Le Beau had just finished her nurse’s training when she heard that the Army was in need of nurses and answered the call to duty. A year later, she found herself camped out in a cow pasture in Normandy, in the wake of the D-Day invasion, on her way to Paris.
I was young and I didn’t know what war was…I guess in a way that was a saving grace.
Le Beau said she never encountered discrimination because she was an American Indian; in fact, when colleagues learned that her great-grandfather was a Chief, they assumed she was an “Indian princess.”
Joseph Beimfohr is another proud veteran who happens to be an American Indian. He served more recently in the Army, and survived intense hostile fire while in Iraq, eventually losing both legs during an explosion. He, like all veterans, relied upon his military training and instincts in the throes of combat. Giving up was not an option.
You can’t just sit there and be paralyzed with fear, because you’re going to get everybody killed.
Through his ordeal, Beimfohr learned that the only limitations in his life were self-imposed.
Le Beau and Beimfohr are just a small sample of the rich collections in the VHP archive. To access more digitized stories from American Indian and Alaskan Native veterans, go here. While you are at it, please join me in paying tribute to and thanking all American Indian and Alaskan Native veterans. Why? For no other reason than because they served proudly too.