In honor of Memorial Day weekend we each have many stories about loved ones that have served their lives in honor of this country. Whether they are grandfathers, uncles, fathers, cousins, brothers and sisters. In our family the stories I grew up hearing where of sacrifices of lives lost and damaged souls to historical involvement of code using our Diné language.
Being that I am of two different tribes you would think that our stories would reflect differently but they don’t. On my father’s side during this memorial weekend we would get into our Delta 88 Oldsmobile and head up to the state cemetery in Santa Fe. On the road from Albuquerque my parents would tell us the story of my uncle Joe. The uncle Joe that I never met that was the oldest of 8 in my father’s family. All these stories were of how he enlisted at a very young age 15 or 16 by lying about his age to serve in WWII. How he believed that if he did so they (government) would give more respect and honor to his community of Santo Domingo pueblo. How on the day he left the village he gave all his clothes away to the young boys in the village. Driving up La Bajada hill my dad would talk about how he admired his older brother. The kind of person he was and how good he treated others. About then Shima (mother) would look over the front seat to us in the back and talk about how he was the best looking in the family. As my dad would laugh and look at us. By this time we would be in Santa Fe heading to the north end. Arriving through the gates at the Santa Fe National Cemetery we would all get quiet. We would stop get out and pay our respects to an uncle I never met. As we drove away and the sound of the tires clunking on the road we heard the story of what happened to this beautiful uncle Joe. My father would take a deep breath and began the end of his story. How this kind gentle uncle life ended on the beaches of Normandy, D-day. Never needed details on how or anything. This was more than enough. In the mid 90’s our family was invited to share our culture/dances in France. On the early trips my parents made my dad was finally able to go to the beach in France, to say good-bye to the brother he admired.
My father was extremely proud to be a Native American veteran who served in the Army. When our dance group would travel across the world he would always bring a US flag to carry if we were in a parade. On 911, just after we saw the 2nd tower went down on “live” TV he walked outside to the front of our house & began digging a hole with his pole shovel. He went to our backyard and brought out a carved pole that he had taken the bark off for one of Shima’s looms. He put his flag on it and placed it in the ground. That simple gesture told how proud he was as a Native American Veteran.
On my mother’s side we were around many of our uncles, clan grandpas that were from the original Navajo Code Talkers. When we would go and perform with our family in our dance group. We would march along side them in all the parades. This was the time before the government recognized for their contribution in the use of our language as code to out smart the Japanese. On many occasions they were asked to reenact the code. Again this was something that I thought many others lived. I didn’t think we were special or anything. I figured everyone knew these stories of the codes and their service. Wasn’t until I got older to find out that they weren’t officially recognized until the 80’s during the Reagan administration. Here is a poem about one of the experiences as a child.
I dedicate this blog to my father, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, sisters & brothers of Indigenous people around the world that have served for their people in “Warrior Status”. Ahéhee’ for your service!
Shawna Shandiin Sunrise
Diné (Navajo)/Kewa (Santo Domingo Pueblo)
Filmmaker, Photographer, Weaver, Educator & Community Events Organizer