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Native American 'Warriors' Mark Military Service

As the nation remembers those who have served in our military, perhaps seldom discussed is the long history of Native American military contributions.

In observance of Veterans Day, NPR host Michel Martin speaks with war correspondent and photojournalist Steven Clevenger about his book "America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq." They were also joined by Native American veteran Lt. Bill Cody Ayon. He explains why "warriors" are so valued in Native American tribes.

Steven Clevenger, you have been taking war photographs for three decades. What gave you the idea to do this book?

Well, oddly enough I found that it's a subject that really has not been explored. There have been biographies of famous Native American warriors, like Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse but there is nothing that's been done with contemporary warriors.

Tell us a little bit more about the warrior tradition.

The warrior culture tradition, it seems to be instilled in the youth. As they grow up, they witness how the warrior, the veteran, is honored by his tribe at dances, powwows, etc. And often times, you'll find that the leaders in the tribes are veterans. They've gone through tough times and the tribe has come to depend upon them for wise decision making.

Lt. Ayon, you come from a military family yourself. How did you become interested in military service?

In my cultural background, my upbringing, raised in my home, we were raised to appreciate and respect veterans through cultural events and I wanted to emulate these individuals that I was around growing up, and all the stories that they told and all the things that they have done. Mr. Clevenger is exactly right, I saw from a young boy that the leaders in our world, the majority of them, were veterans. And I wanted to walk down that road as I got older, as well, so I followed in the footsteps of my father and uncles and I joined the service.

Steven Clevenger, you asked every person in your book if they had any reservations about protecting and defending a country that had not always done right by them. What did they say?

I think that's a natural question. Anybody who is the least bit familiar with taming of America or the west. These people, they've been brutalized, they've suffered through genocide, forced onto reservations. ... So I would ask them, why would you want to risk your life for a country that has done all these awful things to you and your people. ... They didn't consider themselves fighting for the government, they were fighting for their nation, for their people, to protect them.

Lt. Ayon, how did you answer that question?

Our people are still tied to this sacred land. It doesn't matter what entity came over and are in charge of the country now. This soil is still sacred to our people. Therefore, those that serve in the military, in essence, may not be just defending the United States of America but we're defending our land where our grandfathers are buried, where our grandmothers are. That's why you go out and still defend this soil, this way of life that we've kept alive generation after generation.

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