American Indian Heritage Month: more than giving thanks once a year

The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute declared the theme for the 2016 National American Indian Heritage Month, celebrated in November, as "Serving Our Nations." (courtesy graphic)

The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute declared the theme for the 2016 National American Indian Heritage Month, celebrated in November, as "Serving Our Nations." (courtesy graphic)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- As we sit around dinner tables enjoying good food and friends, we don't always think about those who made that first feast possible. November happens to be National American Indian Heritage Month. As the first people to live on the land we all cherish, American Indians and Alaska Natives have played a key role in shaping our country’s character and our cultural heritage, not just encouraging post-turkey food comas.

Today, approximately 27,000 American Indians serve in the Armed Forces, making up 1.2 percent of the military population. American Indians have honorably served in all U.S. armed services since the American Revolution, and as of March 2014, there were 140,556 American Indian veterans.

Sequoyah, a Cherokee who was born in present-day Tennessee, was a silversmith who joined the military during the War of 1812. Observing how white soldiers communicated via written words, he invented a written alphabet for the Cherokee language, using 85 symbols to represent syllables. He later became a statesman and diplomat for the Cherokee people.

During World War I and World War II, the military employed a number of American Indian servicemen to use their tribal languages as a military code that could not be broken by the enemy. These “code talkers” came from many different tribes, including Chippewa, Choctaw, Creek, Crow, Comanche, Hopi, Navajo, Seminole and Sioux. In all, more than 33,000 American Indian and Alaska Native men and women served during this time, fighting on all fronts in Europe and the South Pacific. Collectively, those from World War II alone earned two Medals of Honor, at least 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars and 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Alaskan Natives also served in the Alaska Territorial Guard.

Here, the 366th Fighter Wing's relationship with the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation allows the maintenance and operation of one of the premiere military aviation training ranges in North America. The wing and reservation recently resigned the memorandum of understanding laying the framework for the next five years of cooperation.

To celebrate American Indian Heritage Month, the 366th FW Special Observance Committee posted display tables at the Base Exchange and at the Gunfighter's Club. A table will remain at the club until Nov. 30. Stop by to learn more about the thousands of American Indians who have honorably served in the world’s greatest military, enabling us to deter war and to protect the security of our country.

Members of the Special Observance Committee also visited the Base Child Development Center to read books to the children there, promoting cultural awareness at an early age.

"We owe a lot to our American Indian neighbors and brothers-in-arms," said Chief Master Sergeant David Brown, 366th FW command chief. "Thanksgiving, as well as American Indian Heritage Month, pays tribute to their sacrifices as well as their strength. We appreciate the support of the Shoshone-Paiute and Bannock tribes, and look forward to our partnership in the future."

Editor’s note: The 366th Fighter Wing Special Observance Committee hosts events throughout the year to recognize the continuous achievements of all Americans to American culture and to increase awareness, mutual respect, and understanding among military members, their families, and the civilian work force. Membership is open to all ranks, contractors, civilians, and dependents.