Why do Native Americans seem to join the military at such high rates?
I don’t know anyone in my family who works in technology, owns their own business (aside from the occasional banana bread stand at the swap meet), or works in anything other than blue collar labor, entry level positions, or even had a college degree up until a few years ago. But you know who I do know? A lot of military.
My Dad is really proud of his service, my siblings are really proud of their service. My uncles, my aunts. On our reservation, Veterans have their own monument. At powwows and round dance, Veterans are usually the first to lead. They are the elders in our community, the council people, the people in framed photos lining the community center. They come back from service and everyone is excited. They are out there doing something.
It is one of the few employment opportunities that is actively witnessed in the community. It wasn’t as if 60, 30, or even 20 years ago banks were handing out business loans to American Indians, or white-collar industries were actively recruiting Native Americans to work . We didn’t even get our first Tribal College until 1968, prior to that there was a heavy push to ‘educate the native out of the man’. But not the Military, not only did they allow natives to join - they were recruited, and in some cases celebrated. Look at the Navajo CodeTalkers! Ira Hayes! Choctaw CodeTalkers!
When you are a kid and they ask you what you want to be when you grow up, most kids are saying what they see in media or what they see in their community. So astronaut, lawyer, billionaire, mermaid, doctor - the options are endless for most people…except notsomuch in reservation communities, we don’t see too many of those in our own communities and we rarely see ourselves represented in the media as anything other than this historical, mythical figure. Think about it. What was the most mainstream story reported about Native Americans in the last year, #noDAPL aside? Was it the historic numbers of Native Americans running for political positions this year or the purposeful contamination of Swinomish salmon fisheries or the numerous ongoing land-grabs? No. It is tied between the tiresome debate about Elizabeth Warren’s heritage and the Codetalkers at the White House. What would a kid take away from seeing those? Do you think kids on reservations look at Elizabeth Warren and go “Wow! She made it so that means I can!” or do you think they are looking at the Codetalkers and thinking “Wow! They made it so that means I can!”. I am turning this into a rant about the importance of media representation so I will digress.
So it seems like pipedream to even strive for something when society doesn’t see us that way. Last year I had to give a tour to a group of Native 8th graders who were visiting my school and out of curiosity I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. You know what the answers were? ‘Motivational Speaker’ ‘Rapper’ “a Marine”. Yeah there were other answers but those stuck out to me. Mostly because I find ‘motivational speaker’ to be a problematic, albeit humorous, trend among Native youth, but also which one of those careers (not for lack of trying or talent) but because of available opportunity and guidance, is most likely to happen?
The military is one of the few employment opportunities that is directly aimed at Natives, has a history with Natives, and has built an employment pipeline within the community.
Most industries completely ignore Native Americans, but not the Military. The Military will populate career fairs at Tribal Colleges, billboards, employment fairs. They advertise employment at local chapter houses. They offer the opportunity to travel, to have a job, to be part of something bigger…as well as a lot of other things come with being in the military, but when you are 18 or 19 and live in a rural area - man, do the perks of the military seem enticing.