Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
Defense Logistics Agency Acquisition Deputy Director Roxanne Banks and Jody TallBear, chief of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Civil Rights and Diversity Division Office, brought Native American culture to life during a Nov. 20 observance at the McNamara Headquarters Complex.
November is National American Indian Heritage Month which honors the diverse history of the 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaskan Native nations in the U.S.
Banks is part of the Tiwa Indian tribes of Isleta and Sandia Pueblo, located near Albuquerque, New Mexico. She began her speech in her native language, saying: “Good morning everyone, we thank almighty God for our meeting today and to come together in goodness.”
Banks wore a traditional Native American belt and moccasins, which she normally dons only for special ceremonies. She had her mother send them from home and said she was overwhelmed with pride when she opened the package.
“I felt like a part of me that I keep tucked away back home found me in my professional life in Virginia,” she said.
Banks said her heritage hasn’t presented many barriers in her career but she sometimes feels an inner conflict, a disconnection from her birthplace and traditions until she goes home to New Mexico, usually to attend ceremonial events.
“Each time, I marvel at the beauty, sacred nature and holiness of these events. Nowhere else on the planet can you see anything like it,” she said. “I am a part of it, and it’s a part of me.”
Banks shared Native American history and described dietary, recreational and societal contributions American Indians have made to contemporary American pastimes and traditions.
“Did you know that Native Americans served during World War I, World War II and other campaigns? While many of them were not even citizens, more than 8,000 Native Americans volunteered and served during WWI and well over 24,000 served in WWII,” she said. “One of the most notable contributions during WWII was the service of the Navajo Code Talkers.”
Code talkers were employed by the U.S. military during wartime to use the Navajo language as a means of secret communication. It proved a perfect option at the time because very few people who weren’t of Navajo origin could speak it.
Banks explained that many Native Americans served because of the respect they have for the land. Mountains, for example, serve as a symbolic altar where they give thanks to their creator.
She said her family is proud that she’s achieved senior executive service status, but her career has taken her far away from the reservation and her culture.
“Never forget where you came from,” Banks added. “I’m very proud of [my home] and I try to go back as often as I can.”
TallBear, who has a dual Arapaho and Dakota heritage, said her goal in recounting Native American history is to reinforce the idea that American Indians still exist.
“We are part of a living, breathing culture,” she said. “Our culture is still evolving and is relevant today.”
John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the U.S. from 1801 until his death in 1835, played an integral role in cases that determined American Indian land rights, TallBear said.
“The country was still young. They were dealing with separation of power issues and the role of the federal judiciary,” she said. “They were trying to work through issues of whether states had the ability to oversee tribes or not.”
At the beginning of the 1830s, nearly 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres of land their ancestors had occupied for generations in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida. But Native Americans were forced out as white settlers took possession of the land. When Andrew Jackson became president, he signed the Indian Removal Act, giving the government the power to exchange Native American-held land in the East for land in the West.
TallBear referred to the Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising, which took place in Minnesota from August to December.
“A military tribunal tried the men in trials that took about two minutes each and sentenced 303 Dakota men to death,” she said.
President Abraham Lincoln would later commute the sentence of 264 of them, but a mass hanging of 38 Dakota men was conducted December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
“I realize that some of these truths are hard for us. There’s something to ‘ignorance is bliss,’ but the flip side is ‘knowledge is a burden,’” she said.
The Dakota are family to TallBear and part of the history that’s formed her worldview.
“This history is very real to us, it’s very personal to us; we cherish it and pass it on to our children,” she added. “We don’t do it to build resentment; we do it to show our children how strong we are to still be here.”