CAMP NAVAJO TRAINING CENTER, Ariz. – The military service of Native American tribesmen has been invaluable to the United States since it was formed over 200 years ago.
The family of Jeffery Gay, a member of a Hopi-Navajo tribe, exemplifies this service as he served in Vietnam with the 261st Signal Corps, 1967-1968.
Members of his clan, the Natoh Diné Tachini, were warriors before the first settlers came to America.
“The translation of the clan name means ‘tobacco people where red runs in to the water,’ referencing the ancestral grounds from where the clan originated,” said Gay.
The first member of Gay’s clan to serve the U.S. military was his Grandfather Hosteen Bizhii Adini, whose name translates to “soft voice” or “soft spoken.” Adini served as a U.S. Army Volunteer Scout, out of Fort Wingate, during the Indian Wars of 1891.
To represent his clans’ sacrifices, both in service of the U.S. and in tribal conflict, Gay designed a ceremonial war staff in the traditions of his ancestors.
The clan or family war staff, also known as an Eagle Staff or Tscdettaan by the Natoh, represents and offers homage to fallen warriors of the clan. It was historically carried as a battle standard leading the clan’s advance on their enemies.
“Although now strictly ceremonial,” said Gay, “Eagle Staffs of the past contained so much spiritual power that any members of the clan that rallied behind it would be shielded from the sight of their enemy.”
The staff is covered in buffalo hide, which is considered sacred to all clans, said Gay. Hanging from the top of the staff is an otter tail.
“The otter is believed to be the one who brought the tribe their water during the rebirth ceremony of tribal legend,” said Gay.
The emblem at the top of the staff represents the warrior spirit, and a bell hung near the top is for the fallen warriors.
“When the bell sounds all who hear its approach will be silent and still, to pay tribute to the fallen,” said Gay.
Gay explains other items on the staff such as the pouch hanging from the warrior emblem, which contains tobacco and other sacred herbs and items that have spiritual importance to the clan. Hanging from the warrior emblem are four strings of colored beads which, according to tribal legend, represent the four colors of people: red, white, black and yellow.
The side of the staff has a row of feathers representing, in order: east, south, west, north, mother earth and the internal self. The topfeather, which is honorary, was made by a friend of Gay, a non-Native American adopted by a friendly clan.
The feather was given to Gay by his friend’s widow, and it represents honor to the fallen warriors of non-clan members, friends and other relatives, said Gay.
The Natoh Eagle Staff represents an integral part of the clan’s service and sacrifices in the U.S. military over the years.
“Our lifestyle is the most important thing and respect should be shown for those who have fallen protecting it,” said Gay.