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Commentary: A Native reflects on war and military service

5/1/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photo of Ray Buckley is available at

A UMNS Commentary By Ray Buckley*

In Tuba City, Ariz., there was singing coming from the high school. It was not the sound of a glee club or the school choir. It was the sound of prayer floating from the building into the dry high-desert air. Seven hundred people from the community had gathered to pray for a local woman who was in trouble. Her name, heard in the prayers, was Pfc. Lori Piestewa (Pie-ESS-te-wa), and she was missing in action in Iraq.

Millions around the world had seen her picture via CNN and MSNBC. For many, Lori Piestewa was the first Native face they had seen. They did not know the difference between a Hopi and a Navajo. Many had not thought of Native people serving in the military. Many more Americans had never seen a woman soldier missing in action, and Lori's face, along with others, became stamped in our memories. For this moment in time, Lori Piestewa had become the most famous Native face in the world.

Federal policies often pit Hopi and Navajo interests against each other. The small Hopi reservation, surrounded by the expanse of the Navajo world, seems almost afloat in a desert sea. Still, over the course of several days, Native people--Hopi and Navajo-- responded in traditional fashion. They stood in lines outside of the Piestewa family home, bringing gifts of food and comfort--and praying.

On this night, the 700 gathered in a gymnasium prayed that a hometown girl would be found safe. Believing that "we are all related," they prayed for sons and daughters of other mothers and fathers, and also for the families and children of Iraq. Somewhere, others were singing too, and their songs were carried to heaven, mixing with the songs and prayers for Lori Piestewa.

Across the United States and Canada, other Native communities saw the face of Lori Piestewa. It was a face that could be theirs, or that of their child or their mother. War is always different when you recognize your own face. People began singing and praying in the Native languages of Osage, Cree, Haida, Seminole, and Ojibway. Drums played among the Dakota, Kalispell, Pima, and Micmac. Salish voices were heard, as well as Kickapoo and Choctaw. In the land of the Hopi and Navajo, so familiar with flocks of sheep, prayers were prayed for the safety of this lamb, this one of us. Others prayed for the somebody-who-looks-like-me.

It was a matter of a few days really, such a small space of time to the mountains and the rivers. The Native adage, "Only the mountains live forever upon the earth," seemed to echo through the hollow space in our hearts. Lori Piestewa had come home. Her body had been returned to Tuba City, but we were honoring her living spirit. We stood quietly in long lines, holding pictures of other soldiers, or those who had fought many years before. We held eagle feathers and Bibles, crucifixes and sweetgrass. When we spoke to her family, our voices were soft, and we seldom made eye contact. We were honoring this daughter, this sister, this mother, this friend, and this one-who-was-like-us. We sang in many languages. Our weeping was the same, for laughter and tears are the same the world over. We sang for Lori Piestewa, who was among us, and for those who had no one to sing for them. We are singing still.

Native people have fought in every war involving this nation. When we could be sold into slavery, we fought. Before we were citizens, our people served in the military. Before we were allowed to be treated in public hospitals, our soldiers served. The languages of our people protected U.S. and Allied troops. Choctaw voices in World War I, and Comanche and Navajo in World War II, confused those we were fighting against. When our soldiers came home, our people held healing ceremonies to ease their minds, and we welcomed others who were not Native, but had no one to sing for them.

We are deeply familiar with loss. We understand hunger. We understand death. But we understand prayer, and we value healing. We have carried our homes and our churches on our backs, but we know where we find each other, we find community. Our strength and our survival have been in our prayers and our communities. We are people of the song.

A Song for Those Far Away

We have said your name on the wind.
It is coming toward you.
It is coming toward you.
We have danced a prayer upon the earth.
It is moving toward you.
It is moving toward you.
We have sung for you a sacred song.
We are singing with you.
We are singing with you.
We have called Creator with our hearts.
He is standing with you.
He is standing with you.

# # #
*Buckley is director of the Native People's Communications Office at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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