'That is the warrior way': New film tells the story of Native Americans in the military

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
The Comanche Indian Veterans Association Celebration and Powwow is shown in a scene from "The Warrior Tradition."

FARMINGTON — A documentary that examines the perspective on military service by Native American veterans will premiere nationally on PBS on Veterans Day.

"The Warrior Tradition" focuses on male and female Native American veterans and shares their reasons for enlistment, how they balance culture and tradition while in service and the complexity of serving a government that committed genocide of Native Americans.

More than a dozen veterans from various tribal nations appear in the one-hour documentary, including Marine Corps veteran Peter MacDonald Sr. and Army veteran Jamescita Peshlakai, both Diné.

Comments from MacDonald, who is a Navajo Code Talker, starts the film, which will broadcast on New Mexico PBS Channel 5.1 at 8 p.m. on Nov. 11.

"A lot of people ask, why did you join a white man's war? They weren't nice to you. That may be so. Still, this is our land," MacDonald said in the program.

His point of view about protecting the land is shared among the veterans in the film. Later, he explains the significant role code talkers had in World War II.

The documentary is co-produced by WNED-TV, the PBS member station in Buffalo, New York, and Florentine Films/Hott Productions Inc.

Peshlakai credits her 8-year service in the Army in helping her campaign for political office. She has been representing District 7 in the Arizona State Senate since 2017.

"The Warrior Tradition" premieres on PBS on Nov. 11.

Peshlakai, who served in Operation Desert Storm, appears twice in the documentary.

In one scene, she defines what being a warrior means to her – defending what you love in addition to being humble and courageous and being respectful of life.

"Courage is not muscle and strength. It is about standing up for what is right and that is the warrior way," Peshlakai said in the film.

She was contacted by the producers last year when she was the veteran liaison for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President under the Russell Begaye administration.

"They wanted to interview me, not only because I was a combat war veteran, but because I am an Indigenous woman and a state senator," she said in a telephone interview.

Peshlakai participated in the film because she views it as an outlet to teach that Native Americans exist and, despite the violence by the U.S. government, Native Americans continue to protect their homeland.

She added that when she joined the military, it was out of necessity because she wanted to help her parents and siblings.

"When I first entered the military, that was a very existential conflict within me. But at the same time, I also know that I was drafted out of poverty. Life was very difficult on the reservation," Peshlakai said.

A scene from "The Warrior Tradition" shows the Comanche Indian Veterans Association Celebration and Powwow.

Native American veterans stories continue online in short films

A website has been created to accompany the documentary. It where viewers can find four short films developed by Native American filmmakers.

Ramona Emerson directed "The Protector," which focuses on Donavon Barney, an Iraq War Marine Corps veteran who embraces his Diné beliefs while pursuing a career in cybersecurity.

Emerson, who is Diné, proposed the short film in response to a call from "The Warrior Tradition" producers for films by Native American directors that tell a Native American veteran's story or that center on veterans in Indian Country.

The inclusion of Native American filmmakers and storytelling from the perspective of Native American communities is the reason why Emerson got involved.

"I think it's a good idea that they actually got some Native perspective," she said.

After the initial story about Barney fell through, the film turned into a story about his work, his growing family and about him coming to terms about thinking himself as a veteran.

"As we moved forward with the story, I think it became a deeper story about what it means to be a warrior and what it means to fight for your community and your family," Emerson said.

"The Protector," along with the three other short films, are available at pbs.org/warriortradition.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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