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Saturday, July 13, 2024

‘Why we serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces’ at Indy’s Eiteljorg 

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Serving in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War, Native Americans continue to join the United States Armed Forces, often at higher rates per capita than any other ethnic group. 

To honor this often overlooked legacy, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) erected the first national monument dedicated to honoring Native American veterans. Following this, the NMAI launched the “Why we serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces” exhibit to honor this legacy.  

Thanks to a partnership with the NMAI, the Eiteljorg museum is hosting the exhibition, giving Indiana residents a chance to learn about the history of Native American service. In commemoration, the museum is giving museum members, veterans and current service members of the U.S. armed forces free admission to the entire museum until the exhibit ends on Aug.1. 

“I think (this history) is important to know because not everybody realizes the commitment that Native peoples and Native Alaskans have made to their country and to really get a sense of the diverse perspectives of native peoples and to remind our visitors that native peoples are still here,” said Dorene Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota), curator of Native American art and daughter of a veteran. 

The exhibit displays Native service members, such as Lt. Col. Ely S. Parker, the highest ranking Native to serve in the Union army under Gen. Ulysees S. Grant, and Cpl. Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Native American who served during World War II. 

Hayes was one of six servicemen photographed lifting the U.S. flag after the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Pulitzer-prize winning photo, famously captured by Joe Rosenthal, stands alongside a description of Hayes at the museum.  

tw red native american jingle dresses on display
Two jingle dresses loaned by the Native American Women Warriors color guard stand on display at the “Why we serve” exhibit. (Photo/ Kayla Barlow)

Native American women veterans are recognized in tandem. “Why we serve” features several jingle dresses accented in red, white and blue that were worn by the color guard of the Native American Women Warriors (NAWW), a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting Native women veterans and service women.  

Recognition of Native servicemen isn’t the only focus. Recognition of colonization is included, too. 

“It kind of makes one wonder why would you serve since settler-colonials came over here and took your land, brought disease, and killed your people,” Red Cloud said. “So really the exhibition is a breakdown of the different conflicts, the different histories and gives you a better sense of why.”  

The reasons listed in the exhibition for why Natives serve are “for the same reasons as everyone else: to demonstrate patriotism or pursue employment, education, or adventure,” according to a Smithsonian description at the exhibit entrance. The different reasons and the history accompanying them are also shown, Red Cloud said.  

“(The exhibit) starts with how Native peoples and Native Alaskans in general before settler colonialism began, before contact, had our own way of taking care of our people,” Red Cloud said. “For instance, I’m a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, and men would serve and protect the family and the elders and that was a very important role to be a warrior, so the exhibition talks about that.” 

a native vest, writsbands and a headress on display
Cultural belongings created by Native artists feature a U.S. flag design. The items, made in the late 19th and early 20th century, are from the Eiteljorg Museum’s collection and supplement the NMAI panel exhibits. (Photo/ Kayla Barlow)

The extension of this warrior legacy is shown visually. “Why we serve” explores how the flag was sown into regalia to symbolize honor for some, or to symbolize a resistance to assimilation for others.  

“There’s no way to really say there’s all one same Native American experience or viewpoint,” Red Cloud said. “I feel our collection is really strong and really diverse and I love it very much.” 

Similarly, it showcases the variety of experiences among veterans, according to Jamie Simek, vice president for advancement at the Eiteljorg.  

“No one veteran experiences it the same, and the way they feel about their service varies from one person to another and is a mix of good, bad and other things,” Simek said. “So, I think it’s an interesting juxtaposition of those two ideas together at the same time.” 

A plaque at the “Why we serve” exhibition describes feelings of a 

 Native Vietnam veteran
A plaque at the “Why we serve” exhibition describes feelings of a Native Vietnam veteran. (Photo/ Kayla Barlow)

With these experiences are discussions of trauma suffered from service and Native ceremonies dedicated to healing that trauma, such as the Blessing Way and Enemy Way ceremonies of the Diné (Navajo) people.  

Through the exhibition, Bert Beiswanger, director of marketing and communications at the Eitelorg, hopes visitors leave the exhibit knowing more about the storied legacy of Native service.  

“We really do look at ourselves as facilitators of storytelling, and whether it’s coming in and learning about history, modern day culture or native cultures we want somebody to walk away with appreciation and knowledge that they didn’t have before they came here and an understanding of how many native cultures are out there,” Beiswanger said.  

On July 13, the Eitlejorg is hosting two events for “Why we serve”: a brunch for museum members at 9 a.m. and a tour of the exhibit guided by curators at 2 p.m.  

To learn more about “Why we serve” or other exhibitions, visit eiteljorg.org

Contact Indianapolis Recorder intern, Kayla Barlow, at kaylab@indyrecorder.com. 

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