Remembering Native Veterans

Story and Photos by Danny Beaton Turtle Clan Mohawk

In Memory of Alicja Rozanska, Jimmie Blueyes and All Our Veterans

My old Ojibway elder Wilmer Nadjiwon told me that when he returned home from World War 2, he walked into the local bar and the bartender refused to sell him a beer, because Wilmer was a full-blooded Indian from Cape Croker, Ontario, and it was against the law to sell a native a beer in 1946. Later Wilmer would become chief of his tribe, the Chippewas of Nawash, for fourteen years.

Wilmer was born in 1921. He was the last World War 2 Veteran of Neyaashinigming who had seen combat. Wilmer founded the Union of Ontario Indians. He was a gifted carver, with many of his carvings going into museums. He wrote his first book “Not Wolf Nor Dog”. When he was a child, he was put into St Peter Claver Residential School in Spanish Ontario and was raped. Wilmer enlisted in the army at the age of 21. He was a gunner fighting in Italy. He had six brothers who also joined the war to fight and all survived battle. Wilmer was a father of 13 children, a hunter, fisherman, trapper, politician. In the end of his life he began painting in acrylics and water paint to share his vast life experiences.

For the past year I had a chance to sit down and talk to a war veteran who fought in the Afghanistan war and Desert Storm. He would tell me a new story every morning, while we were drinking coffees at Tim Hortons. It was an honour to be with a survivor and meet someone who wanted to share the pain he was carrying after coming home to Canada, but felt he had seen too much horror. It was quite heart-wrenching to hear my brother Steve recount the sadness of native soldiers coming home with PTSD and there was a high suicide rate among our military. Steve told me that when he arrived in Afghanistan, he compared the indigenous people there to indigenous people living in Canada or the Americas on reservations now or like a hundred years ago: still hunting, gathering, cooking off a wood-burning fire, getting water from a well, many people living in tents and mud huts. Steve said many Afghanistan people were indigenous to their country and there were tribes and it was very much like Canadian natives living on reservations on their own territories here. Many of the indigenous people in Afghanistan were still farming the land and Steve said that once you would have a chance to interreact, the Afghanistan people were not all bad, but very very kind. Many of the so called enemies treated Canadian soldiers with kindness. This really made a strong impression and so having to kill Indians in a foreign country became traumatic. In fact, Steve told me native soldiers were traumatized, stressed out, and ashamed for killing the Indigenous people they were killing. Steve told me many of our soldiers had taken to alcohol to kill the pain they were feeling. Also Steve said many soldiers were now walking the streets in the USA and Canada homeless because of their flashbacks and memories of seeing their brothers blown up by mines and missiles. The war had left bitter scars and psychological disorders in their mind, bodies and spirit.

Like Wilmer Nadjiwon coming home ready to hunt and fish, our soldiers would never be the same after returning from seeing their comrades blown to pieces or coming home with no legs. The complete side effects of war has caused so much mental, physical and spiritual pain and damage. Now Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an epidemic among native and non native soldiers. Yet some of our veterans have become role models and ceremonial leaders among our people. Our Chiefs maintain our greatest strength, which is gentleness. In our teachings our elders, chiefs and clan mothers stress that force is only to be used when all forms of peaceful talks fail. As long as I and my partner/wife have known Wilmer, war was not his greatest enemy: it was the priest in residential school who raped him. As long as we knew him, he was really wounded in his youth by residential school. No war could break him: he was a real veteran, a real hero, a real friend and a real leader for his people. Wilmer cared for organization, strategy, healing, working for his Ojibway people, hunting, fishing, carving and in the end painting. Like most people in the world, we do not forget our ancestors peacekeepers and veterans! They carry the experience of battle, pain and survival, love, peace and friendship with the enemy.

When I began to travel with our old elders, there was a feeling of trust and unity that we would be doing something positive and healing for Mother Earth. It meant we were doing something that had to be done: it was creating awareness and education. We would plan Indigenous Gatherings to bring a North American Native Perspective into Toronto and throughout Ontario classrooms with native elders from all across North America. Working with Indigenous elders and wisdom created awareness and environmental education. Today’s Veterans need the same healing and teachings from our old elders. Our native ceremonies are for giving thanksgiving, healing, socializing and more. Our Native Veterans need our Sweat Lodge Ceremonies, Pipe Ceremonies, Sacred Circles, Purification Smudging and more. Our veterans need to go out in the wild, out into the forest, into the bush hiking in nature, spending time with spiritual people and elders and teachers who will listen to their stories of pain, loss, guilt, depression. We need healers now more than ever, because trauma is creating social conditions in society. Our veterans are coming home to a prison state, a prison industrial complex, police brutality, missing women, White Supremacy. We need Healing Centers with mandates to restore balance and alternative healing, alternative medicine, Indigenous Diets. We need Safe Places for Healing our Veterans who are suffering and passing the trauma onto their families. All of our Wilmer Nadjiwons are watching over us, they are our ancestors. All of our veterans are trying to heal and carry on as best as they can, never knowing when a helping hand is near, or brother or sister ready to share whatever they have to offer. Our societies survived on sharing; that is our way of life and it is a good way of life. Our veterans have our respect and love always. It is our way of life, our ancestors taught us not to forget. My uncle is buried in Italy and my father fought in two wars, my uncles are veterans. My elders, chiefs, maybe some clan mothers too are veterans and loved by our families, communities and country! It is my duty and honour to share and write their feelings, stories and pride. Now I also thank all the Veterans and Peacekeepers who keep our culture strong, but I also thank all the caregivers and healers who are helping them still and healing the wounded.