National American Indian Heritage Month: Protecting Nihi kéyáh, preserving culture

  • Published
  • By Airman Juliana Londono
  • 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

Airman 1st Class Verneon Reed, 319th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Detachment 1 RQ-4 Global Hawk maintainer, poses for a photo, Nov. 17, 2021, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Reed is of the Navajo people, growing up on the Arizona side of the reservation. He poses with a traditional Navajo necklace worn by the tribes’ men.

For over a millennia, American soil has been loved and respected by Native Americans. Even with generational trauma inflicted upon them by the U.S. government, Native Americans have continuously fought for “Nihi kéyáh,” which means our land in Navajo. Brave men known as the Navajo Code Talkers are one example of how Native American respect for Nihi kéyáh has positively impacted the land as a nation.

Airman 1st Class Verneon Reed, 319th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Detachment 1 RQ-4 Global Hawk maintainer, is of the Navajo people. Navajo culture is one of many Native American cultures pushed out by the American government for centuries. Despite forced assimilation in order to return home, Navajo men stood up in 1942 to defend their home.

During World War II, the United States military wanted to use code, so the U.S. Marine Corps recruited Navajo men to use their language.

“29 Navajo men agreed to serve,” Reed said. “They went down to the Marine Corps base where they attended code learning school, and there they developed the code used in live battle. The enemy wasn't able to decipher the code, so realizing the code worked, more Navajo men were recruited. From the 29 men came about 400 and the Navajo code eventually grew and more codes were developed.”

It was because of those 29 Navajo men that Reed was inspired to join the U.S. Air Force.

“Even though the Navajo people as a whole had undergone such treatment by the United States government, even though we are on this reservation, on federal land, even though we are living by their laws, this is our home and this is their home too,” Reed said. “The Navajo Code Talkers wanted to defend our homeland alongside the military and do our part through developing code. It was through them that motivated me to join.”

Growing up on the reservation

Reed grew up on the Navajo Nation, a reservation that spans over four states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. He was raised on the Arizona side while attending a boarding school system put in place for indigenous children by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA.

The BIA was created after different tribal leaders made a deal to be able to return to their sacred homeland, this deal led to a peace treaty which was signed June 1, 1868. It was when they were back home the Navajo grandchildren were forced to go to these boarding schools. Children were told to cut off all their hair and wear suits. They were taught by Christian instructors and were forced to learn Christianity and the English language. This boarding school system had been around for over a century but today many of those culture stripping institutions have been closed.

“The teachings there were harsh, a lot of it was military style,” Reed said. “I stayed in the dorms for most of grade school. Most of my RA’s (resident assistants) were Vietnam veterans and our daily routine included marching, fixing our beds, and details.”

Reed left the reservation to go to college and graduated in 2015 with his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and then left Arizona completely for basic training in February 2021.

Both times, he faced cultural conflict while living off of the reservation because of his upbringing.

“For us native indigenous people, younger generations are told not to talk or interrupt our elders or instructors,” Reed said. “We are told to listen and take in what they have to offer but in the western education system it’s reversed. Students are expected to participate and raise their hand. When I was at basic military training (BMT) it happened again. In my mind I thought I had to simply listen to this drill instructor. I didn't know there were all these leadership roles you could take up. However, I found that applying my cultural upbringing at the early stages of my life was very helpful. It was as if I had prepared my whole life for this: waking up before the sun was up; making my bed; cleaning and being respectful to my elders.”

Staying connected to his culture

“I think staying connected through the language is important,” Reed said. “A lot of our younger generations are losing our language and a lot of them blame it on the BIA system. We were taught to learn their language and forget ourselves. Basically, kill the Indian, save the man and forget our ways. A lot of our families are traumatized by that. I myself am fluent in the language thanks to my grandparents upbringing. Even though I am now away, I’m still holding on to my native tongue.”

Reed plans to keep passing off his knowledge to younger Navajo children in his family and hopes to pass off what he was taught to his own children one day.

“I was raised by my grandmother and she taught me a lot of cultural traditions,” Reed said. “With her, teachings were focused on tending to the livestock and the corn fields, which is very important to Navajo philosophy and my grandparents' teachings. If we don't carry on the traditions, culture, language and any other little part of it we will cease to exist.”

The importance of National American Indian Heritage Month

After countless attempts to erase Native American culture in the United States, their culture is finally being highlighted as are their contributions because of a more diverse and inclusive mentality throughout the country.

“I think educating our existence, our culture, our identity is very important,” Reed said. “Letting people know that we are here and these things took place and just having cultural awareness and opening your eyes is important.”

Native Americans are the base of this country, having helped shape what it is today. Even through years of hardships and struggles forced upon them by the government, they still continuously help defend their home.

Native Americans serve five times the national average in the Armed Forces. They have bravely fought for their home without receiving the recognition they deserve. Airmen like Reed make the Air Force a stronger place. Reed’s willingness to share his own experiences and culture helps educate other Airmen on significant parts of history.

National American Indian Heritage Month provides the opportunity not only to highlight the multiple tribes in the U.S. and their culture but also recognize the many contributions they have made to America and acknowledge the past, both good and bad.