On Sunday I was driving south on County Road 18 near Red Wing, MN. Hilly and green, I was enjoying the scenery despite the lousy weather when I saw a middle-aged woman in military gear standing along the left side of the road. She stood with a purpose, but with no one around and a car only going by every now and again I didn’t understand what it was.
Thoughts of her began to dissipate a quarter mile down the road when I saw a middle aged man in similar garb also standing alongside the road. Sure, it was Memorial Day weekend, but what were these soldiers up to?
The third time was a charm. In another quarter mile, I pulled over at the sight of yet another man in uniform. He was a middle-aged Native American, and the sight of him made me even more curious as admittedly, I’d never really thought of Indians being in the army.
His name was James Thunder Hawk, 57, and he and his fellow soldiers were standing along this stretch of highway because it was being dedicated to their fellow, recently-fallen Native brother-in-arms, Dennis Wells. Wells passed on November 11 of last year–Veteran’s Day.
Thunder Hawk said that honoring Wells, a Vietnam vet, by standing along the road was a traditional salute, that if it was a building commemoration, they’d stand around it. Thunder Hawk went on to say that he knew Wells quite well as he was married to Wells’s cousin. He remembered him fondly. “He was a quiet, humble guy,” said Thunder Hawk.
Asked about his own service, Thunder Hawk, now a resident of Bloomington, MN, said he was stationed in Würzburg near the border of East and West Germany during the Cold War. Intrigued by the participation of Native Americans in the U.S. military but also having more questions about this dedication, Thunder Hawk recommended I continue down the road to the end of the memorial where Art Owen, the organizer of the event, was manning his post.
I did so and encountered this group of three:
I asked if Art was present. He made himself known as the man in the blue on the left in the picture above. Arthur Owen, 64, lives on the Prairie Island Indian Reservation right next to Treasure Island Casino and just miles from where we stood. He was the cousin of Dennis Wells and said there were around 60 veterans members taking part in this commemoration. Fifteen were standing along this stretch for the 15-20 minute salute, and following was a powwow.
I asked Owen how Wells passed. He paused a beat before answering that he thinks it was Agent Orange, the chemical weapon used by the U.S. during Vietnam, that did it. Because of it, “his colon couldn’t digest”, he said. Learning that Wells’s service to the U.S. army might be responsible for his death, I asked Owen about being drafted or enlisting into the army. “Drafted?” he responded quickly as if I said something obscene. “We don’t like that word,” Owen said and shared that he signed up for the military, that he went to fight.
I then asked a question that had been on my mind ever since talking to Thunder Hawk: What inspires Native men and women to fight for a government who fought their ancestors?
He responded with a paragraph of statements explaining his way of life. His father fought; his grandfather fought; his uncle fought at Iwo Jima–the U.S. government even used him as a model for the Iwo Jima War Memorial statue. Owen was brought up to appreciate the “military code” he said and added that his people are “warriors”.
He said all this without any ferocity or even much passion, just matter-of-fact. “I raised my right arm. I took the oath,” he said, explaining his presence here today. I asked, though, if other Indians scoff at his participation in the U.S. military. He says some do. But reiterated that this is his way of life–regardless of what happened in the past.
It seems for Owen and other like-minded Native Americans, best to be on the side for something than to maintain an adversarial stance on the sidelines. Still, I was struck by how deep the importance to belong to something, to show devotion, to honor, to work for something bigger than oneself was in these men–despite the history, despite the fact that he believes Agent Orange took his cousin’s life, and even despite the fact that Agent Orange has affected his.
It started to sprinkle, and they had a powwow to attend. On our way back to his truck he shared that his involvement during the Vietnam War left physical marks that continue to harm. Besides being hit with metal fragments in the forearm and leg, four years ago he lost his ability to walk and talk. I asked about help from veteran services, and he responded that the military doesn’t honor Agent Orange as a problem so didn’t help him. So he helped himself.
Owen said he worked to regain his physical skills over the course of a year. Then in an act to prove what he could do and practice gratitude, he said he hopped on a motorcycle and drove to Sturgis, SD. “It took me six and a half days, but I made it”, he said pointing to the horizon of this very road which he took, it drifting up a hill and off to the right.
And now this road is in memory of Dennis M. Wells, former Minnesota State Purple Heart Commander, whose Dakota name is Wicanhpi Wiyakpa–“Bright Star”.