MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA, UNITED STATES
QUANTICO, Va. - Although many will be celebrating a different holiday next week, some have been celebrating their culture and heritage all month.
Cpl. Elizabeth Thurston, a Native American combat photographer, explains the other November celebration, Native American Heritage month.
“Not all Native Americans feel the same way, but there are a lot of things that we don’t celebrate,” said Thurston. “We don’t celebrate Columbus Day, and Thanksgiving is iffy with us.”
Thurston, part Cherokee, Lenape and Blackfoot, and Ojibwe-born Lance Cpl. Josette Harstad, administrative specialist with the Installation Personnel Administration Center, talked about their different experiences as Native Americans.
“November is a big month for us because my family has always taken pride [in who we are],” said Thurston. “We would celebrate [by going to] parades or powwows and staying in contact with our background as much as possible.”
Native Americans have played vital roles in the history of the United States military. One example is the Navajo Code Talkers who used their language as a code to transmit secret messages during World War II.
“It’s absolutely amazing to be part of that legacy,” said Thurston. “It makes you want to dig deeper and carry out the tradition.”
Harstad talked about traditions she experienced like attending a Native American school and church, and learning the Ojibwe language as well as Native American events she attended.
“We used to go to powwows all over Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota,” said Harstad, a Minneapolis native. “At powwows we dance, so I’ve been dancing basically since I could walk.”
Master Sgt. Tavis Peeks, equal opportunity advisor for Marine Corps Installations Command commented on the purpose of recognizing times like the Native American Heritage month.
“We have to understand that we are all different and agree that those differences make us unique and that uniqueness bonds us together,” said Peeks. “If I don’t know anything about you and you don’t know anything about me we can never be on the same page.”
Although both Marines are proud of their heritage, they said joining the Marine Corps hasn’t always been understood or accepted by their families and friends.
“My mom didn’t want me to join the Marine Corps because of the history of our people,” said Harstad. “What I’ve done goes against her beliefs.”
The Marines also explained that some Native Americans view joining the military as almost an act of betrayal to their people because of the history of conflict between their people and the “white man.”
“Some Native Americans ask why I’m fighting for something that was taken away from us,” said Thurston. “I actually get a little bit of flak for joining the Marine Corps.”
But that hasn’t stopped the Marines from following their goals of serving in the Marine Corps.
“I don’t believe the same,” said Harstad. “I’m a part of the United States just as much as anybody else and I wanted to fight for my country as a whole, [not just one ethnic group].”
“I don’t look at it [the same way as other Native Americans],” said Thurston. “I still believe it’s my America. It’s still my country, so I’m fighting for my country.”
The main thing the Marines want from the month is recognition.
“I think that we are definitely forgotten about,” said Thurston. “Remember our past. We should remember the foundation of America.”
Harstad explained the importance of having others understand modern-day Native Americans.
“I like to show and teach people the ways of Native Americans, because people have misconceptions of the ways Native Americans are today,” said Harstad. “We aren’t much different from anybody else. The Marine Corps has many races; I just like that we are all one community, here to protect our country.”
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This work, Step to the side, Thanksgiving, by Cpl Samuel Ellis, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.