As we remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military, parades, flags, speeches, visits to final resting places and other gatherings are among the ways we commemorate their service and sacrifice.
Originally called Decoration Day, a number of places have claimed to be the birthplace of this somber celebration. But it was in the summer of 1865 in the village of Waterloo, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region of New York, that Henry C. Welles, a prominent local druggist, during a social gathering with his friends, shared an idea for a community-wide memorial celebration for the Civil War dead.
The notion, however, did not catch fire until the following spring when uber-patriotic Civil War hero General John B. Murray enthusiastically embraced it. Locals bedecked the village with flags at half mast, evergreens, and black draperies to signify mourning.
On May 5, 1866, led by General Murray, townspeople paraded to the solemn pageantry of military marches and decorated soldiers' graves as it held its first formal village-wide Decoration Day.
But in 1868, under the orders of Gen. John A. Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, Waterloo joined other communities in observing the event on May 30th, Decoration Day was officially renamed Memorial Day, and the event proclaimed a holiday. After World War I, it expanded to honor all men and women who died in military service, and in 1971 became a federal holiday.
In 1966, Governor of New York Nelson A. Rockefeller proclaimed Waterloo as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, and it was further recognized in a Presidential Proclamation by President Lyndon B. Johnson the same year.
But what, you may be asking, does all this have to do with Lori Ann Piestewa (pie-ESS-ta-wah)? And who was she, anyway?
Hold on, I'm getting to that. But here's a hint: she was a member of a minority group that represents only 0.9 percent of a total population of 308,745,538 according to the latest U.S. census. But from this tiny remnant emerges the largest per capita group of U.S. military servicemen and women than from any other ethnic group in America.
In the 1990s alone, 160,000 of all living American Indians were veterans. At the end of the twentieth century, there were 190,000 Native veterans. No matter how you interpret the math, that's a pretty high percentage. And this is not a recent thing. According to Encyclopedia.com and other sources, Native Americans serving in the U.S. military date back to the Revolutionary War.
But for brevity's sake, I'll start with the Civil War: the last Confederate general to surrender was Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Cherokee Indian (myself of Native heritage, I have my own opinion about oppressed people fighting on a side that would keep other oppressed people under the yoke, but that's another story). But however misguided Stand Watie and his Confederate Indians were in this writer's opinion, the fact remains that he was a distinguished warrior and one of only two Native Americans ever to attain the rank of Brigadier General.
The other was a Union soldier, the Seneca Nation's Ely Samuel Parker. Besides rising to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General, his impressive résumé also includes adjutant to General Ulysses S. Grant. He was an engineer who also studied law and was a tribal diplomat. When Grant was later elected president, he appointed Parker the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, making him the first Native American to hold that office.
By now, you may be insisting: WHAT does all this stuff have to do with Ms. Piestewa??
Hold your horses. I'm just about there. But before I do, let me also add that honoring warriors, living or dead, is a big deal in Native America. A really big deal, because they exemplify the qualities that Native cultures hold in high regard. The weapons, tactics, motivations and theatres of war have changed over time, but the warrior tradition continues and those who serve are highly esteemed.
Considering the tragic history of the relationship between the U.S. government and Native America, some non-Indians have asked them why they fight for this country. After all, they reason, Native Americans in their entirety were not granted citizenship until 1924. And yet, many have volunteered to fight in America's wars and conflicts for over 200 years.
Answer to the question: they fight because America is still the homeland. And when somebody threatens home or its interests, you take a stand. You fight for it.
But regarding Ms. Piestewa again—here goes. A loose translation of her last name is "the people who live by the water."
She was born in Tuba City, Arizona, December 14, 1979 on the Navajo Indian Reservation and served in the U.S. Army from 2001 to 2003. Her father is Hopi; her mother, Mexican-American.
In the family's tradition of military service, her paternal grandfather served in the U.S. Army, Europe, in World War II, her father, in Viet Nam as did—according to the Naval History and Heritage Command website—more than 42,000 other Native Americans, 90 percent of them volunteers.
But on March 23, 2003, Lori Piestewa, mother of two, a quartermaster soldier of the 507th Army Maintenance Company and her comrades were traveling in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq when their convoy was ambushed. Her Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Piestewa later died from her wounds.
She was awarded the Prisoner of War medal, the Purple Heart, and was promoted posthumously from Private First Class to Specialist.
Although Native women serving in the military traces back to World War I, Specialist Lori Piestewa was the first U.S. female soldier killed in the Iraq war, and the first combat death, ever, of a Native American woman in U.S. military history.
Although this "First" is a tragic one, for Specialist Piestewa and the thousands of other servicemen and women, Native and non-Native who paid the ultimate price, their memories are sacred. To even enlist, knowing the dangers, contradicts the very law of survival: the preservation of one's own life. And whether Native or non-Native, in a popular or unpopular war, those who served exemplified the qualities so revered in Native traditions:
Strength. Honor. Pride. Devotion. Wisdom.
But the one that best describes all who have served is Honor; and as Romans 13:7 in the Holy Bible instructs, "Render, therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due...honour to whom honour."
We do pay them tribute. And we do render them honor. Each and every one.
K.B. Schaller, journalist, novelist, poet and conference speaker, is author of Gray Rainbow Journey (National Best Books Award Winner, USA Book News) and the sequel, Journey by the Sackcloth Moon (both OakTara). She lives in Plantation, Florida. www.KBSchaller.com