Memorial Day weekend is one of my favorite times of year. I’m a child of the summer, and as an added bonus my birthday usually falls right around this weekend. Like many others, before the Coronavirus outbreak I would have been counting down the days to a fun vacation and our annual kick-off to this wonderful season.
Not this year. Instead, I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on something so much more important—those who have given their lives in service to our country.
Although my husband and I have been stuck in our apartment downtown Washington, D.C. following stay-at-home orders like so many others across the country, we count ourselves fortunate to be a brief walk from the National Mall. We go on walks twice a day and one of our favorite places to visit is the National Museum of the American Indian, not to visit the museum itself (obviously, it’s closed), but to see the progress of the new National Native American Veterans Memorial. Unencumbered by my usual dreams of vacation and summer, I’ve been focusing a lot more on the meaning of Memorial Day, especially for our Indigenous communities. Most Americans are unaware that Native people serve at one of the highest rates per capita of any other group in our country. My Nakoda grandfather served in World War II as one of the first members of the new radar unit in the Air Force. This level of service is one of many reasons that Native nations and their members across the United States grow up with a solemn reverence and respect for our Native veterans and those who passed during wars.
Today, service to our communities and self-sacrifice seems more important than at any other time during my generation. During this Memorial Day, I do hope that we can all take the necessary time to care for ourselves by healing our minds, bodies, and spirits, but I also hope we can take this unique moment to reflect on the real purpose of this holiday. Our veteran ancestors fought and gave their lives in many conflicts on behalf of the United States, but they were also sacrificing to maintain our tribal sovereignty, our culture, and our lands. These warriors in our tribal communities have always represented values and cultural principles that are so much stronger than brute force. They represent a determination, reciprocity, and resilience that keeps our nations and cultures strong, no matter the gravest challenge of the day.
Just last week, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the United States, and several other tribal nations are facing similar severely disproportionate infection rates. This is the grave challenge of today. Those of us who have never served in the military often feel uneasy reflecting about the meaning of this kind of sacrifice. But this Memorial Day, reflecting on our warriors has helped me draw inspiration and strength from the service and sacrifice of our tribal communities and their supporters across the country. Our community members have been doing everything they can to deliver meals, source personal protective equipment for their elders and healthcare workers, and house our homeless, to name only a few. Tribal leaders are standing up for their people by establishing checkpoint systems on highways, even in the face of hostile actions by state government. And, we have had a tremendous and growing response from individual and institutional philanthropy, contributing millions of dollars to COVID response funds.
This Memorial Day, I hope you’ll be able to take this challenging moment to reflect on our fallen soldiers—but just as importantly—on the communities, values, and cultures for which they sacrificed. Their legacy is something from which we can all draw strength as we navigate this crisis together.