Vietnam Powwow:
The Vietnam War as Remembered by Native American Veterans

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Edited by Robert Sanderson, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

 

Overview:

We are proposing for publication a collection of narratives by Native American veterans about the Vietnam war. Currently, no such collection is available, a surprising absence in that Native Americans were perhaps the most over represented group in the armed services during the time of the Vietnam war. According to the 1980 U.S. Census, 82,000 American Indians served in the military during the Vietnam era. Many, undoubtedly, found themselves in Vietnam. Yet, no major study to date has identified Native American veterans as a distinct socioeconomic group in that war. In fact, only recently has any significant attention been given to the social, economic, and cultural needs of Native Americans in general. Notably, it is time that Vietnam War era American Indian vets and their families be provided a forum for expressing their views and reflections on America's longest war. Hence, the purpose of the volume is to present in their own voice the experience of Native Americans during the Vietnam War era.

 

The Flaws in the Official Histories:

As we turn again and again to assess the meaning of Vietnam and its role in recent history, we find that the official view of the war, the one that could provide the big picture, is a strikingly limited one. It is limited because the experience in the field was not consistent with the accounts put together at the headquarters planning level. It is now commonly accepted that our quantitative accounts of the war body counts, weapons captured, villages stabilized, refugees resettled can be highly misleading. Often the figures were outright misstatements (lies). Often, our leaders were telling us what they hoped was the case, what should have been, or what could have been. In short, the war that we were told was happening was often not the real war at all.

 

The Potential of Unofficial Histories:

No wonder, then, that in the pursuit of the meaning of Vietnam, some researchers have gone the opposite direction from the official view. We now know that what individual soldiers saw, felt, and later reported has great value, despite the obvious limitations. As participants in any activity, we are radically limited in what we observe, and our later report is certain to be a kind of distortion. But this kind of individualized distortion could hardly be more distorted than the official view. And we now accept the premise that a collection of individualized views could correct a distortion, could clarify a picture.

What has become a standard in the field of Vietnam research are the unofficial histories, often in the form of collections of narratives volumes such as Bloods, Grunts, A Piece of My Heart, Nam, and In the Combat Zone. In these collections, several groups have now had the opportunity to present their experiences in Vietnam: Blacks, nurses, pilots, special forces, and so on. Our knowledge of the Vietnam war is richer, wiser, more complete, and more accurate because of these accounts. With them we are closer to understanding the events.

In the effort of chronicle the record of the man, or woman, in the field, one group has been totally overlooked the Native American.

 

Native Americans and the Vietnam War:

Among the annals and fables of the Vietnam War there are many references to Indian Country, a term given by American troops to describe the territory held by their enemy, the Viet Cong. As a term, Indian Country conjures images of the unfamiliar terrain inhabited by blood thirsty, heathen savages of American western folklore. Reminiscent are the war whooping raiders of the Great Plains tribes, circling the covered wagons and the charge of the U.S. Cavalry. Ironically, however, in Vietnam there were no Indian war parties, no attacks on covered wagons and the U.S. Cavalry charged into battle with the enlisted support of Native Americans whose ancestors were the targets of former U.S. policies in another series of conflicts known as the Indians Wars. Gone were the old myths about the revival of a Pre-Columbia Native America. Gone, too, were the old myths about vanquished Indians being left to vanish on Federal Indian Reservations. A new portrait of Native Americans began to emerge during the Vietnam era. This new American Indian was more independent, autonomous and possessed a greater awareness of his place in American history and modem society. And, for many, the Vietnam war presented this emergent Native American with new opportunities.

After years of bearing the yoke of dependency, created in part by the misguided policies of a seemingly indifferent government, Native American began to arise as a more visible and active minority of the American population. It was during this time, when Native Americans were facing the problems of adjusting to contemporary life, that the Vietnam war was increasing its momentum. For many Native Americans, the Vietnam war presented a way out of the cycle of poverty experienced on government reservations. For others, it was a way of demonstrating patriotic pride, and following the warrior's path through active military service. Regardless of the reasons, approximately 82,000 Native Americans served in the military during the Vietnam War era.

The voices of these Native Americans have scarcely been heard. At a time when the chronicles of the Vietnam war have captured the reflections, thoughts and sentiments of many other groups and individuals, the voices Native Americans have remained relatively silent. If they remain silent, if their stories go untold, we risk once again having an incomplete and distorted history. We would be settling for a history with similar distortions to the previous histories that failed to account for the voices of other Native Americans who were instrumental in the cultural, political, and social development of the land we call America.

 

The Book We Propose:

Our volume has a very direct and simple goal: to put forth the story the Native Americans in the Vietnam War--the story told in their words.

Our project has been underway for over a year, during which Native Americans all over the nation have had the opportunity to contribute their narratives. The volume as planned will run 300 to 400 pages.