U.S. soldiers celebrate Native American heritage in Iraq

24 Sep 2004 | Sgt. Enrique S. Diaz 1st Marine Logistics Group

The Army's 120th Engineer Combat Battalion held a Native American pow wow here, Sept. 17-18, 2004.

The Okmulgee, Okla.,-based unit held the pow wow to promote cultural understanding of their heritage with other servicemembers here, while bringing a piece of home to many of the Native Americans serving in Iraq.

The unit's yearlong deployment to Iraq means many of the soldiers will miss out on their families' pow wows.

Historically, a pow wow was a ceremony performed before hunts and battles. Today, pow wows are held to celebrate special occasions and to share songs and customs.

Highlights of the festivities included storytelling, dancing, music, a class on pow wow etiquette, and the chance to sample traditional food.

The ceremonies were accompanied by traditional Native American games, such as the tomahawk throw and stickball, a game resembling field hockey where opponents use  sticks to move a ball, usually made of hide, down a field to the opposing team's goal.

Nearly 20 percent of the 120th's soldiers are of Native American decent, said Army Capt. Shareen S. Fischer, the battalion's chaplain and Shinnecock Indian.

''I was brought up in a home where the native culture, the native spirit is very, very alive,'' said Spc. George D. Macdonald, a supply specialist and a Chickasaw Indian. ''So being away from it for a long time brings you down when you think about the pow wows back home.''

The pow wow here brought soldiers, sailors, and Marines together and helped increase awareness of the Native American culture, said Fischer.

Among the Native Americans who won't be home this year for their family's pow wow is Army Sgt. Debra K. Mooney, a Choctaw Indian and Idabel, Okla., native.

''We're brought up with them (pow wows). The beat of the drum is a part of the heartbeat of a Native American'' said Mooney.

Realizing the majority of the Native Americans would miss their pow wows back home, Mooney proposed an intertribal pow wow in Iraq to Fischer.

''I thought it was crazy at first,'' said Fischer, a 32-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native.

With her battalion commander's approval, Fischer had just five weeks to plan out the pow wow, an event that usually takes months to coordinate.

To make the event happen by deadline, Fisher and Mooney appointed soldiers to subcommittees to speed up the process.  Native dress, jewelry, and other essential regalia had to be sent from families back home; and dances and events had to be organized and rehearsed.

Although some of the items mailed to the soldiers did not make the deadline, the pow wow was still successful.

Many of the soldiers felt proud that they had participated in this historical event, the first pow wow ever held in Iraq.

''Being involved with it makes you feel really good about yourself,'' said Macdonald, a 19-year-old native of Sasakwa, Okla., and head dancer for the pow wow.

''We all joined together, it was just like being at home,'' added Mooney. ''It was just as important for them (other soldiers in the battalion), for the pride of 120th, and the state of Oklahoma as it was for us.''

Following the dancing, singing, and other performances, the event did not conclude with a Native American tradition, but rather a military one – the retirement of the colors.

Throughout the event, Native Americans shared a significant part of their culture with fellow soldiers, sailors, and Marines. As the Indians made their stay in Iraq feel a little more like home, the other servicemembers learned about a culture they are helping to defend.
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1st Marine Logistics Group