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  • Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls RevisitedThe Research, the Findings, and Some Observations of Recent Native Veteran Readjustment
  • Tom Holm (bio)

In early 1981 my longtime friend Harold “Hodge” Barse, a Sioux/Wichita/Kiowa who was at the time a readjustment counselor with the Oklahoma City Veterans Administration Outreach program, called to ask me if I knew of any studies of Native American Vietnam veterans. I had to say that I did not know of any. With that telephone call we began an unfunded inquiry into the lives of American Indian Vietnam veterans. It was, in keeping with the foundations of American Indian studies, an activist, academic approach to what we perceived was a largely overlooked and misunderstood group of Indian people who not only deserved recognition for their military service but also merited attention to their specific needs in dealing with their return from a war zone. Both Hodge and I were veterans—he of the army, I of the Marine Corps—and very much aware of the various problems of our veterans and the social, political, and economic conditions they faced upon their homecoming. In particular, Hodge wanted to collect information on our veterans so that he, in turn, could make a case to the Readjustment Counseling Service of the then Veterans Administration to identify and deal with the specific needs of Native American veterans.1


Very quickly we developed a one-page questionnaire and circulated it among several Native veterans we knew personally. One overwhelming [End Page 118] notion that the few Vietnam veterans we interviewed referred to was that of being recognized for their service. Vietnam was an unpopular war, and many Native Americans opposed it because Indians were subject to the draft and could be sent to war even though the Native population in the United States was extremely poor. Moreover, the U.S. government failed to recognize Indian civil, sovereign, treaty, and human rights.2

Obviously, Native veterans saw their service in a different light, a conception of self that reflected their cultural values as opposed to their political views. They thought of themselves as tribal warriors, an idea that carries a meaning for Native Americans that is very different from its meaning for the larger American society. Perhaps the best way to explain the notion of warriorhood in tribal societies is to look at it in terms of relationships rather than roles. While each American Indian tribe has its own practices, there are some commonalities among many North American tribes. Traditionally, a warrior is part of a community and is not segregated in a base or camp. Members of the community view the warrior as a relative who takes part in battle not only to protect the community but also to restore justice and serve the people in other ways. The warrior may be a scout who finds resources or one who warns the community of a coming attack and becomes the first line of defense against an enemy.3

In 1981, when Hodge contacted me, the way to begin an organization or to ensure the recognition of certain persons or groups among Indian people in western Oklahoma was to hold a powwow. Hodge initiated such an effort at the Wichita tribal grounds near Anadarko, Oklahoma, in order to form the Vietnam Era Veterans Inter-Tribal Association and Gourd Dance Society. This powwow, held in 1981, was the first of a long series of events held in honor of Native Vietnam veterans. I was able to go to Oklahoma and lend my meager assistance in organizing that and a few more subsequent dances.

The powwow helped bring together a number of Vietnam veterans to gourd dance and thus participate in a time-honored warriors’ ceremony. According to Kiowa tradition, a lone warrior who was on his journey home from a war party heard some beautiful songs. He investigated the source of the songs and found a red wolf, who taught him the songs and the ceremonies that went with the power or medicine they engendered. The origins of the gourd dance are somewhat controversial. The Kiowa people claim the ceremonies as their own based on this particular piece...


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pp. 118-128
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