For over a millennium, American soil has been loved and respected by Native Americans. Even with the generational trauma inflicted on them by the US government, Native Americans continually fought for “Nihi keyáh,” which means our land in Navajo. The courageous men known as Navajo Code Talkers are an example of how Native Americans’ respect for Nihi keyáh positively impacted the land as a nation.
Airman 1st Class Verneon Reed, 319th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Detachment 1 RQ-4 Global Hawk Maintainer, is from the Navajo people. The Navajo culture is one of the many Native American cultures expelled by the US government for centuries. Despite forced assimilation in order to return home, the Navajo men rose up in 1942 to defend their home.
During WWII, the US military wanted to use the code, so the US Marine Corps recruited Navajo men to use their language.
“29 Navajo men have agreed to serve,” said Reed. “They came down to the Marine Corps base where they attended the code learning school, and there they developed the code used in live battle. The enemy was unable to crack the code, so realizing the code was working, more Navajo men were recruited. Of the 29 men came about 400 and the Navajo code eventually grew and other codes were developed.
It was because of these 29 Navajo men that Reed was inspired to join the US Air Force.
“Even though the Navajo people as a whole have suffered such treatment from the United States government, even though we are on this reservation, on federal lands, even though we live by their laws, this is our home. and it is also their home, ”Reed said. “The Navajo Code Talkers wanted to defend our homeland alongside the military and do our part in developing the code. It is thanks to them who motivated me to join.
Growing up in the reserve
Reed grew up in the Navajo Nation, a reservation that spans four states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. He grew up on the Arizona side while attending a boarding school system set up for native children by the Indian Affairs Office, or BIA.
The BIA was created after various tribal chiefs reached an agreement to be able to return to their sacred homeland, this agreement led to a peace treaty which was signed on June 1, 1868. It was upon their return home that the Navajo grandchildren were forced to go. at these boarding schools. Children were told to cut all their hair and wear costumes. They were taught by Christian instructors and were forced to learn Christianity and the English language. This boarding school system had been in existence for over a century, but today many of these culturally lacking institutions have been closed.
“The teachings there were tough, largely military style,” Reed said. “I stayed in the dorms for most of primary school. Most of my RAs (resident assistants) were Vietnam Vets and our daily routine included walking, fixing our beds and detailing.
Reed left the reserve to go to college and received his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 2015, then left Arizona completely for basic training in February 2021.
Both times he faced cultural conflict while living on the reservation due to his upbringing.
“For us aboriginal people, the younger generations are told not to talk or interrupt our elders or our instructors,” Reed said. “We are told to listen and accept what they have to offer, but in the Western education system it is the other way around. Students should participate and raise their hands. When I was in Basic Military Training (BMT), it happened again. In my mind, I thought I should just listen to this drill instructor. I didn’t know there were all of these leadership roles you could take on. However, I have found the application of my cultural education in the early stages of my life to be very helpful. It was as if I had prepared my whole life for this: waking up before sunrise; make my bed; clean and be respectful to my elders.
Stay connected to your culture
“I think staying connected through the language is important,” Reed said. “Many of our younger generations are losing our language and many of them blame the BIA system. We were taught to learn their language and to forget about ourselves. Basically, kill the Indian, save the man and forget about our ways. Many of our families are traumatized by this. I am fluent in the language myself thanks to my grandparents’ education. Even though I am now absent, I still cling to my mother tongue.
Reed plans to continue passing his knowledge on to the youngest Navajo children in his family and hopes to one day pass what he has learned on to his own children.
“I was raised by my grandmother and she taught me a lot of cultural traditions,” Reed said. “With her, the teachings focused on caring for livestock and cornfields, which is very important to Navajo philosophy and the teachings of my grandparents. If we do not carry on the traditions, the culture, the language and any other small part of it, we will cease to exist.
The importance of National Native American Heritage Month
After countless attempts to erase Native American culture in the United States, their culture is finally being showcased, as are their contributions due to a more diverse and inclusive mindset across the country.
“I think educating our existence, our culture, our identity is very important,” Reed said. “Letting people know that we are here and that these things have happened and just having a cultural awareness and opening your eyes is important.”
Native Americans are the foundation of this country, having helped shape what it is today. Even through years of government imposed hardships and struggles, they still help defend their home.
Native Americans serve five times the national average in the armed forces. They courageously fought for their homeland 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 important parts of the story.
National Native American Heritage Month not only provides an opportunity to highlight the multiple tribes of the United States and their culture, but also to recognize the many contributions they have made to America and to recognize the past, to both good and bad.