Underscore News + ICT

Since the end of World War I in 1919, Nov. 11 has been recognized across the United States as a day to honor Veterans. Native veterans often hold a special place in the hearts of Native community members.

In southern Washington, the Yakama Warriors Association is made up of both Native and non-Native veterans, committed to supporting one another and honoring veterans in the community.

Founded in 1991, the association currently has an estimated 100 members. Around one-quarter are active in the association, according to multiple members.

The group has a number of events happening to honor Veterans Day this weekend, including multiple flag raising events, a veterans honor meal and the Yakama Nation Veterans Day Powwow.

Andy Thompson, Cherokee, carries the American flag, leading a procession of other Yakama Warriors Association veterans, including Victor Wood, right. (Photo courtesy of Yakama Warriors Association)

Spiritual growth

A Vietnam era veteran, Stanley Miller, Yakama, has served as chaplain for the Yakama Warriors Association since 2008.

Miller enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1972, following in the footsteps of his older brother, who received a purple heart from his time serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.

“I had to be different,” Miller said. “He was Army, so I joined Marine Corps.”

Miller served for three years, stationed in San Diego.

In 1991, Miller helped found the Yakama Warriors Association, as a group of camaraderie and a place for Native veterans to share their experiences with others who may understand. At the time of its founding, the association was meant for Native veterans only but not long after, it opened up to non-Native veterans from the community as well.

“I didn’t only serve for my family, but I served for my people,” Miller said. “Growing up I always heard from my elders that we have to protect our Indian land. As Indian people, what I was taught from my elders and my parents, that Indian veterans are held at high prestige. All veterans, not just Natives.”

Miller’s brother originally served as chaplain for the Yakama Warriors Association. When he passed in 2008, members elected Miller to take his place.

“I was nominated to be the chaplain and step into his shoes,” Miller said. “I was taught not to turn nothing down. When someone asks you to do something, you step forward.”

As chaplain, Miller performs blessings during funerals, oftentimes blending Christianity and Indigenous traditions, he said.

When the Yakama Warriors Association attends a veteran’s funeral, Miller says a prayer followed by a folding of the American flag to gift to the family. The veteran is then honored with a rifle salute and playing of the service song that correlates to the branch they served in.

“As the chaplain I feel it’s helped me grow in my life. Spiritually, it makes me stronger,” Miller said.

Finding community

Victor Wood, commander of the Yakama Warriors Association, served in the U.S. Navy from 1969 to 1973. During his four years, he toured to Vietnam on the USS Midway, Fighter Squadron 161.

When his ship landed in San Francisco in 1973, Wood returned home to White Swan. There, he worked construction, for the White Swan Lumber Company before working in the school district for 31 years.

Hoping to connect with other veterans, Wood originally thought about joining the American Legion. However, they were not friendly to Vietnam veterans in the years directly following the war, Wood said.

Wood helped his dad sell rodeo stock supplies and in 1995, as they sold supplies for the Yakama rodeo, a tribal member asked Wood to join the Yakama Warriors Association.

“I never felt like a veteran until I got involved with the Yakama Warriors Association,” Wood said. “The way the Native community honors their veterans is just so heartwarming and sincere.”

Now, Wood has served as commander, also known as head warrior, of the Yakama Warriors Association off and on for the past 20 years.

As head warrior, Wood helps organize events and often speaks during funerals and other engagements. Beyond attending funerals, the association also speaks during school assemblies, attends parades, helps organize the Veterans Day powwow and does some travel.

For Veterans Day 2022, the Yakama Warriors Association traveled to Washington D.C. to take part in the dedication ceremony for the National Native Veterans Memorial.

Beyond supporting current members, one of Wood’s main goals is to get younger veterans to join the association.

“I think a lot of our patriotism from the younger people is not as strong as it used to be,” Wood said.

An internal conflict

As a child growing up in farm country in Washington, Mary Diavolikis, Yakama, would run to the end of her driveway many evenings to wave at military trucks passing by. She knew from a young age that she wanted to join the army.

The week after graduating high school, Diavolikis shipped out to Fort Jackson. She served for a total of three years, in places such as Texas and Germany. For some of that time, she served as a multi-channel radio operator.

Now, Diavolikis is a maintenance worker for Yakama Nation Tribal School.

As a Native veteran, Diavolikis often finds herself conflicted in thinking about serving the U.S. military.

“When I was little, that’s all I really wanted to do is be in the service,” Diavolikis said. “Stepping back, I see more of the things that have happened to our people.”

Diavolikis’ aunt and uncle are both survivors of the Indian boarding school system. As a Native person, she is often confronted with the horrors the United States government inflicted upon Native people and the lasting implications today.

“There’s a lot of conflict in my mind about serving for this country,” Diavolikis said. “But on the other hand, I served to keep our rights as Native people.”

In 2011, Diavolikis joined the Yakama Warriors Association, where she currently serves as secretary for the group.

One of her favorite ways that the Yakama community honors veterans is during the yearly Yakama Nation Veterans Day Powwow. During the second night, veterans are called forward following grand entry and given a chance to introduce themselves and tell a bit about their time in the service.

Though she struggles with her own internal conflict about serving this country as a Native person, Diavolikis is proud of her journey and has found a strong, supportive community within the Yakama Warriors Association. She encourages other veterans to do the same.

“I am honored to have served this country for my people,” Diavolikis said. “We need people to keep carrying on what we do.”

This story is co-published by Underscore News and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Lead image: Members of the Yakama Warriors Association gather in front of the Yakama Nation Cultural Building. (Photo courtesy of Yakama Warriors Association)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...