As a relative of ancestors that survived the trail of tears and as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, I often become cynical. I truly believe this is a mechanism of survival—a protection of my spirit. Yet, I am also blessed to be a mother and grandmother, and to have the opportunity to become an ancestor.
I missed the Hummingbird’s women’s sweat lodge today, but I am comforted because I know it exists. I am also comforted because I know Colibrí is at home, the most beautiful medicine drum entrusted to me by community elders to help heal women in my community–including veteran women. Colibrí can easily fit ten women around her. I haven’t sat by her side nor convened the powerfully beautiful women that sit with her, since we drummed for Inés on Día de los Muertos four months ago. I am grieving. Dr. Inés Talamantez, my mentor, elder, best friend, sister en la lucha, who drummed beside me for many years and was part of our drumming circle died, and I miss her. She died the week after we last convened the Veteran Women’s Indigenous Healing Circle (VWIHC). She was one of the precious Elders that has supported our sisters. She was the first person that wanted to really hear what life was like in the military. She saw me. She understood the responsibility of our communities to heal each other. She also had not had closure from the disappearance of her favorite uncle during WWII and knew she needed to resolve this by saying goodbye. Inés became our revered Elder and listened to every veteran woman that would attend, reminding us that we needed to take care of each other. Grieving the loss of Inés feels familiar: I lost myself a long time ago—the day I took my military oath.
I am not going to justify that decision; it would be as absurd as asking a woman why she was raped. I am learning to be compassionate with myself. Yes, worthlessness prevails, shame prevails, genocide prevails. It was the reason I needed to find my sisters—sisters that I feared, envied, hated, and ridiculed when I was in the military. I was mimicking the prevailing sentiments of all of us in uniforms—uniforms made for brothers in arms. Little did I know I was reinforcing patriarchy and delegitimizing my place in the world—a world of wars with sporadic peace.
Historically women have been fighting wars on many fronts. I recognize that this has been debated, undermined, and denied because it did not sit well with the overwhelming historical narratives meant to prop up hetero-patriarchal leadership at all levels of American exceptionalism. It has been evident that now we include “our men and women” when we speak of soldiers fighting “our” wars to defend multiple imperialist justifications for the “good” of the nation, a historical way of life that continues to terminate indigenous peoples. The war mongering, imperialism, and our government’s propagandas abroad are followed by the abandonment of the “heroes” who come home. A group of women has come together to push against the betrayal and neglect of a nation who explicitly and implicitly washes its hands of queer, indigenous, and injured veteran women when they return.
My journey away from the panopticon that is military service led to an inclusive, embracing, and gentle indigenous experience of healing, embracement, compassion, and forgiveness. I share this with the explicit hope that this message reaches those still in the shadows waiting to be reached and understood.
We, the Veteran Women’s Indigenous Healing Circle, have gathered for five years. We came together in Ojai, California in 2015 and found support from local elders. After five years of research on veteran women’s issues around Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and veteran suicides coupled with the lack of support and research of indigenous veteran women (like myself), I felt compelled to find community and resources to come together and figure out how we could help each other. We were able to partake in Equine therapy thanks to the donation of time and resources from Reins of H.O.P.E. We were also gifted a space to sleep and cook because women came from all over the country. Inés asked her favorite restaurant Del Pueblo in Goleta for help and they donated enough Posole to feed 50 women. I took a wagon to the local farmers market in Goleta, CA where I lived and asked stalls for donations. I was given so much food I could barely fit it in the back of my Tahoe. I cried because with every donation I heard a story about a recent retirement, a son deployed, or a father who had not come home. It became evident that our communities’ caring support was what would keep us going. And so it was. We were donated a house in Kaua`i, had flights donated, and we found a sweat lodge and learned the true meaning of Aloha from Kalama kūpuna, relatives of Naomi, who taught us how to sing Hawai`ian prayers so the sun would come up every morning. We were challenged by men at the Kaua`i Pow Wow when they wanted to hand Color Guard flags to young boys instead of the veteran women present, but these women are feisty and with our own Eagle Staff Migizi we led the way. It was the first time I carried a flag since I had left the military in 1998. It was conflicting to carry but the slight victory over patriarchal norms made up for it.
We have traveled and have made space with the help of our communities and the confidence of our circle. We frequently speak the same language but get to learn from each other’s service because we served in all branches. Sometimes the language of the Army is very different from the Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corp. We are not all Native American.
We found a Lakota-style sweat lodge held by Marie in Taos, NM. She and we understood the contradictions of Lakota ceremonies on Taos lands but also understood the blessing of this lodge. It had come to us because the Creator heard our mutual prayers. At Vashon Island we sat in a cedar sweat lodge and embraced for the first time. We shared in talking circles about things only we can understand. We cooked together and we sometimes laughed when military words like “secure” or “0600” came out of our mouths—laughter that is rare. We understand that we have unique experiences that we chose to pray over and build camaraderie we were not able to forge with other women when we were in the military.
It is always an answered prayer when women come, leaving their loved ones behind, to find connections and share stories kept inside our bodies, from recent experiences to many decades and lifetimes later—memories stashed away from ourselves and from others—until they appear as we sit in the mud and finish singing an honor song. The song, caught by Cherokee Elder Barbara Warren called “Women of the 507th” names Lori Piestewa, Shoshana Johnson, and Jessica Lynch—women from the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company in Iraq who were either POWs or KIA, and realize we are a part of a bigger history.
On November 11, 2020 we plan to attend the Veteran’s Day Native Veteran unveiling in Washington, D.C. I am a bit reluctant to position this as a good thing, but we voted, and we are going. I hope it brings healing through visibility, but it is none-the-less a reminder of our continued genocide.
I have no doubt about the necessity of being in community (in the trenches) and learning protocols including forgiveness and compassion for others and the self, if you are to engage in learning, teaching, and advocating for change. After a decade dedicated to learning about Chicana/Indigenous/Native American Queer Veteran women through the field of Religious Traditions, Feminism, Ethnic Studies and Social Justice inside and outside of the academy I realize that the best teachers around Indigenous healing, history, trauma, resilience, and so much more comes from the many Elders including Deborah Guerrero, Linda Woods (veteran), Naomi Kalama (veteran), Arleen Coggins Robles (veteran), Moses Mora (veteran), Judi Aparcana-Ortiz, Ana Becerra, Inés Talamantez and so many others at the Hummingbird Circle and around the country. These women hear each other’s experiences and remind each other that they are not alone—they hold each other and remind each other that they need to forgive themselves—they embody the compassion that they seek. I have encountered a beautiful resilience along this journey. Cutcha Risling Baldy reminds us in her important work we are dancing for you: Native feminism of women’s coming-of-age ceremonies, “Either Native women are [believed as] assisting in the colonization of their people, or they are dirty and disregarded as overly sexual, stupid, and lazy. Native women have also been left out of historical scholarship and treated as peripheral to their nations, cultures, and societies rather than shown as integral or as serving in leadership positions.” The women of the VWIHC push against this.
In our drum circle, Colíbri is our grandmother, our medicine. Indigenous ceremonies are lifesaving and necessary. I need to continue to stay alive so that my grandson gets to learn, practice, and share our people’s wisdom so that he can become an ancestor. He needs to know about indigenous ceremonies because it was created for him to survive.