< Back to Search

Native American Veterans - Storytelling for Healing

Published: October 3, 2012
Native Veterans

Native American Veterans: Storytelling for Healing

Greetings,Native veterans, from the top: Jonathan Thomas, Tohono Oodham, Operation Iraqi Freedom; December Dickerson, Ojibwe, Army National Guard, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Administration for Native Americans (ANA) thanks you for your interest in Native American Veterans: Storytelling for Healing featuring Native American veterans from World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. ANA is proud and excited to offer this valuable resource to your community.

Storytelling for Healing is a website providing resources and a DVD. The website covers many topics important to Native American veterans, while the DVD includes interviews with individual veterans discussing issues they face today. The links below provide information on: historical perspective with statistics from previous wars; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the role of ceremony in service and healing; and resources for Native American veterans. ANA will continue to add resources to this website, so please check back for updates.

We hope this resource will help heal and contribute to the wellness of our native communities by providing perspective to those who stand and work with us to build a better tomorrow. If you are a veteran, our heart-felt thanks and gratitude go to you for watching over and protecting us; you and your families have given a lot. For those who are not veterans, we encourage you to listen to the stories and show your respect and appreciation to those who have served to ensure our freedom and security.

With many thanks for all you do and have done; the Administration for Native Americans is proud to have been able to produce this resource and want to thank ACKCO for ensuring the success of this project.

You may view a YouTube stream of Native American Veterans: Storytelling for Healing here.


Jonathan Thomas, Tohono Oodham, Marines, Operation Iraqi FreedomDecember Dickerson, Ojibwe, Army National Guard, Operation Iraqi Freedom

The Healing Power of Stories

Native Veterans, from the top: Billy Richards, Native Hawaiian, Marines, Vietnam; Terry Medicine Crow, Lakota/Crow, Navy, Operat

Storytelling has often played an essential part in healing in indigenous cultures. Stories that heal contain many of the values that are an important part of many native cultures. These values include, but are not limited to: acceptance, courage, truth, and spirituality. When these are in place, some individuals can begin to make meaning of their experiences. Through talking circles or other means of discussing military service, one can often recognize how storytelling is critical to the healing of emotional wounds for veterans. Western culture has begun to recognize the value of ceremony and the healing power of the narrative as tools in modern behavioral health practice. As they become understood, these indigenous healing methods are gaining respect as powerful tools for healing.

Stories can be gathered in a variety of ways depending on the purpose and resources. Most tribal colleges now have computer classes and labs to coordinate and support the capturing of stories. There are also websites and software available to create digital stories that can be placed on tribal websites. The Library of Congress maintains a participatory website where all veterans can upload photographs and tell stories at: http://www.loc.gov/vets . Methods for gathering and preserving veterans’ stories can be complex or basic; approaches by communities include:

  • Utilizing talking circles or sweat lodge ceremonies specifically for veterans.
  • Reviving (in some cases continuing) the practice of ceremonies or dances in honor of veterans where the accomplishments of the veteran are told by tribal/spiritual leaders.
  • Encouraging students to interview veterans as a history project and create a booklet of the interviews for distribution.
  • Researching one’s community or tribe by gathering family photos or other memorabilia of loved ones who have served in the military. These items can be copied or scanned to create community scrapbooks or displays for inclusion in a community history event coinciding with Veterans Day or Memorial Day.

Billy Richards, Native Hawaiian, Marines, VietnamTerry Medicine Crow, Lakota/Crow, Navy, Operation Desert Storm

Tips on Using Storytelling for Healing
(with facilitation questions)

Native veterans, from the top: Duane Brookins, Winnemem Wintu, Navy, Vietnam; Hayes Lewis, Zuni Pueblo, Army, Vietnam; Marcella

The audience for Storytelling for Healing is intended to be diverse.  The reader may be native or non-native, a veteran, a family member, or a service provider working in a tribal clinic or at a Veterans’ Administration hospital.  The reader may have years of experience working with veterans or may be a family member trying to better understand a loved one’s experience.  This website is not designed to answer every question, but rather start the reader on a path of learning.  The digital stories and other resources can be used to educate or facilitate discussion.

The digital stories can be viewed by individual veterans or in groups.  For some individuals, it is therapeutic to discuss these events with others having similar experiences.  Additional benefits may come from stories shared by veterans who view the DVD.

The following are general facilitation questions based on the DVD that may be used with individuals or groups following a viewing of one or more of the stories.  The guide begins with general questions that can apply to any of the stories, followed by questions that may be more appropriate to specific stories.

Facilitation Questions:

A number of storytellers spoke about the significant role his or her comrades played during their time in the service.

  1. What individual from the video stands out for you and why?
  2. From your military experience, is there a person who had particular importance to you while serving?  Have you seen him or her since your service?
  3. What feelings arise when you think of him or her?
  4. If you had the opportunity, what would you like to say to that person now?

Other storytellers spoke about the transition from their role as a civilian to a soldier and lastly to a veteran.

  1. What were your roles (e.g. your family, community, workplace, etc.) prior to joining the military?
  2. Did your roles change when you entered the service?  If so, how did you feel about the changes?
  3. Did the roles of your loved ones change during your time in service?
  4. Do you have new roles now that you are home?  How do you feel about those changes?

Storytellers also shared defining moments during their time of service.

  1. Was there a particular image or event from your military experience that stands out in your mind?
  2. What were your feelings when the event was happening?
  3. Have those feelings changed?  If so, how?

Some storytellers shared about the role ceremony played in entering the service or returning home after completing their service.

  1. Does your tribe still practice ceremonies for service enlistees or returning veterans?  If yes, did you participate in such a ceremony when you entered the service or when you came home?
  2. Did you find the ceremony helpful and is there anything you can share with others about this experience?


Duane Brookins, Winnemem Wintu, Navy, VietnamHayes Lewis, Zuni Pueblo, Army, VietnamMarcella Lebeau, Lakota, Army, World War II

The Role of Ceremony in Service and Healing

Collection of medicine objects: goard, tobacco, sage, and medicine bag.Traditionally, indigenous cultures understood the importance of spiritual balance for individual and community well-being. These cultures understood ceremonies were part of the ongoing fabric of the community and existed to prepare, protect, and heal the individual as he or she journeyed through life’s stages. Naming, puberty and warrior ceremonies all had similar themes: the individual for whom the ceremony was being held was entering a new phase in which they would give up the ‘old’ roles and responsibilities and embrace a set of new roles and responsibilities.

Warrior ceremonies were intended to protect the individual in battle and to instill within them characteristics and values associated with his or her tribe’s warrior tradition. The tribe knew the experiences the warrior would encounter would threaten his or her physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and that cleansing, healing and letting go ceremonies were needed to counterbalance these experiences. Tribal members understood that ceremonies had to take place in order to help warriors manage the transition from warrior roles back to those they had previously held in their communities: the roles of parents, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, and community leaders. They felt that failing to perform these ceremonies was detrimental not only for the warrior, but also for his family and tribe. Today, many native people believe their communities continue to experience the effects associated with participation in past conflicts, and failure to provide ceremonies for cleansing, healing, and letting go.

While many tribes today are not practicing these ceremonies, there are still some tribes that do. Two examples of tribes that continue such traditions are the Zuni Pueblo and the Navajo (through the Enemy Way Ceremony). Other tribes are attempting to revive these ceremonies, trying to overcome the challenges that come with not having done them for so long. One recent Iraqi Veteran stated, “People are afraid of doing the ceremonies wrong, because they don’t know exactly how it was done in the past; but what’s important is the intentions the people have when they do the ceremony.”


Native American Service in the U.S. Military

Large numbers of Native Americans enlist for military service and represent the highest per capita enlistment of any ethnic group in the United States. The reasons vary from supporting their families and ensuring economic stability, to seeing the world. The stories captured on the DVD present firsthand accounts of trauma and life changes as a result of military service.

When World War I erupted, young native men enlisted in numbers that many people might think surprising, considering Native Americans had not yet been granted U.S. citizenship.  The number of Native Americans serving in the military remained high during World War II, even when the social climate was such that Native Americans were not allowed to patronize businesses in many reservation border towns in the Southwest and Plains states.  Despite experiencing discrimination and prejudice, Native Americans proudly displayed portraits of young men in uniform in their homes during this period.

During the last half of the 20th century, Native Americans were frequently forced to assimilate and many ceremonial practices began to disappear or go underground.  Additionally, employment rates on or near reservations continued to decrease.  As a result, serving in the military became a rite of passage for many young native men.  Today, this practice continues not only with our young men, but also with many young native women.

Why did so many native people choose to serve their country?  As presented in the DVD, there were many factors, not the least being the tradition many tribes have of protecting the community.  These tribes continue to view service, sacrifice, and courage as important values and part of an individual’s journey to becoming a leader, protector, and agent of change for his/her family or tribe.  On a more practical level, young natives often join the military because it is a way to see the world, support their families, pay for education, and gain experiences that are not available in their own communities.


U.S. Department of Defense, Information Delivery System, “Active Duty Report by Gender and Race-Ethnic Group-3035 (EO)” July 2005.

U.S. Department of Defense, Information Delivery System, “Active Duty Age Change Report,” September 1987 – July 2005.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Holiday, Lindsay F., Bell, Gabriel, Klein, Robert E., Wells, Michael R., “American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans: Lasting Contributions,” September 2006.


Issues Facing Native Veterans Today

The challenges facing native veterans today are similar to those facing veterans of all ethnicities throughout the United States. These challenges include access to healthcare, substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness, and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Veterans may have different needs depending on the era in which they served and the social climate regarding service; World War II veterans may be hesitant to apply for benefits, feeling they were just doing their duty. Korean Veterans may have health needs related to the cold weather endured during their service. Vietnam veterans may experience physical issues related to Agent Orange, and younger veterans may have symptoms of Gulf War syndrome. Veterans who served during peacetime also need to be aware of the benefits for which they are eligible and how to apply.

Veterans from all eras may experience some level of post-traumatic stress, but not all do. For those who do have post-traumatic stress, the severity can vary. One factor influencing the severity is the type of duties the veteran performed during his/her service. In some cases, institutionalized racism may have influenced the extent to which certain groups are susceptible to PTSD. Native veterans, for example, commonly confronted stereotypes held within the military regarding natives. They were called names such as “chief,” and were often treated as if they had instinctual or mystical powers on the battlefield. This resulted in some native soldiers being assigned hazardous combat duties such as walking the “point,” and being more exposed to hostile fire than others in the unit. In these cases, the level of post-traumatic stress may be more severe and the use of coping mechanisms, including alcohol and drug use, may be more common.

Upon returning home, native veterans may face challenges in accessing care. Often, veterans’ hospitals are located great distances from the rural, remote homes of many veterans. These logistical challenges make it more important for tribes, agencies, and communities to be creative in how they approach working with native veterans. Tribes and native communities are responding to these challenges by establishing tribal veterans’ affairs departments that not only appreciate the unique needs of native veterans, but also recognize the ways that cultural practices can be applied in healing veterans. Language, culture, and ceremony are being revived and acknowledged as integral factors in the healing process.

The following is an excerpt from an electronic article on the Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project, which assessed the readjustment experience of Indian, Japanese , and native Hawaiian veterans of the Vietnam War. The article, published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, begins here and can be followed by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project

Military personnel of many ethnic backgrounds served with distinction in the Vietnam War. The 1988 National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) demonstrated that Black and Hispanic veterans who served in Vietnam experienced significantly greater readjustment problems and higher levels of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than White veterans. To extend the study findings to other minority veterans, the late Senator from Hawaii, Spark Matsunaga, initiated a major project to assess the readjustment experience of American Indian, Japanese, and native Hawaiian veterans of the Vietnam War. This resulted in Public Law 101-507, which directed the VA's National Center for PTSD to conduct what became known as the Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project. The Matsunaga Project involved two parallel studies. The Indian Vietnam Veterans Project surveyed a sample of Vietnam in-country veterans residing on or near two large tribal reservations, one in the Southwest and the other in the Northern Plains. These populations had sufficient numbers of Vietnam military veterans to draw scientifically and culturally sound conclusions about the war and readjustment experiences.

The Hawaii Vietnam Veterans Project surveyed two samples, one of native Hawaiians (the indigenous peoples of the Hawaiian Islands, who constitute about 22% of the permanent population in Hawaii) and another of s of Japanese Ancestry (the descendants of Japanese immigrants who comprise about 24% of the permanent population in Hawaii).

The full text of the article can be found at: National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

What is Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after one has been through a traumatic event. During this type of event, you may think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening.

Anyone who has gone through a life-threatening event can develop PTSD. These events can include:

  • Combat or military exposure,
  • Child sexual or physical abuse,
  • Terrorist attacks,
  • Sexual or physical assault,
  • Serious accidents, such as a car wreck, or
  • Natural disasters, such as a fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, or earthquake.

After the event, you may feel scared, confused, or angry. If these feelings don't go away or they get worse, you may have PTSD. These symptoms may disrupt your life, making it hard to continue with your daily activities.

How does PTSD develop?

All people with PTSD have lived through a traumatic event that caused them to fear for their lives, see horrible things, and feel helpless. Strong emotions caused by the event create changes in the brain that may result in PTSD.

Most people who go through a traumatic event have some symptoms at the beginning; yet only some will develop PTSD. It isn't clear why some people develop PTSD and others don't. How likely you are to get PTSD depends on many things. These include:

  • How intense the traumatic event was or how long it lasted
  • If you lost someone you were close to
  • If you were hurt
  • How close you were to the event
  • How strong your reaction was
  • How much you felt in control of events
  • How much help and support you got after the event

Many people who develop PTSD get better at some point in time. But about one out of three people with PTSD may continue to have some symptoms. Even if you continue to have symptoms, treatment can help you cope. Your symptoms don't have to interfere with your everyday activities, work, and relationships.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD can be terrifying. They may disrupt your life and make it hard to continue with your daily activities. It may be hard to get through the day.

PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not happen until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. If the symptoms last longer than 4 weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, you probably have PTSD.

There are four types of symptoms: reliving the event, avoidance, numbing, and feeling “keyed up.”

Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms):

Bad memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. You may feel the same fear and horror you did when the event took place. You may have nightmares. You may even feel like you're going through the event again. This is called a flashback. Sometimes there is a trigger: a sound or sight that causes you to relive the event. The following are examples of these triggers:

  • Hearing a car backfire, which can bring back memories of gunfire and war for a combat veteran
  • Seeing a car accident, which can remind a crash survivor of his or her own accident
  • Seeing a news report of a sexual assault, which may bring back memories of assault for a woman who was raped

Avoiding situations that remind you of the event:

You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.

  • A person who was in an earthquake may avoid watching television shows or movies in which there are earthquakes.
  • A person who was robbed at gunpoint while ordering at a hamburger drive-in may avoid fast-food restaurants.
  • Some people may keep very busy or avoid seeking help. This keeps them from having to think or talk about the event.

Feeling numb:

  • You may find it hard to express your feelings. This is another way to avoid memories.
  • You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships.
  • You may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy.
  • You may forget about parts of the traumatic event or not be able to talk about them.

Feeling keyed up (also called hyper-arousal):

You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. This is known as hyper-arousal and may cause you to:

  • Suddenly become angry or irritable
  • Have a hard time sleeping
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Fear for your safety and always feel on guard
  • Be very startled when someone surprises you

What are other common problems?

People with PTSD may also have other problems. These may include:

  • Drinking or drug problems
  • Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair
  • Employment problems
  • Relationships problems including divorce and violence
  • Physical symptoms

What treatments are available?

When you have PTSD, dealing with the past can be hard. Instead of telling others how you feel, you may keep your feelings bottled up.

But treatment can help you get better.

There are good treatments available for PTSD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of counseling. It appears to be the most effective type of counseling for PTSD. There are different types of cognitive behavioral therapies such as cognitive therapy and exposure therapy. A similar kind of therapy called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is also used for PTSD. Medications can be effective too. A type of drug known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which is also used for depression, is effective for PTSD.

If you have never sought or received care from a DVA hospital or clinic, the following contact information can be used to begin the application process and enroll in DVA medical care:

  • Toll-free number can help you locate services 1-800-827-1000.
  • The Internet address is: www.va.gov.

Every VA medical center and clinic has a PTSD specialist who is familiar with readjustment problems caused by war trauma and who can provide you with a thorough evaluation and recommendations for treatment.

Additionally, you can e-mail ncptsd@va.gov or call the PTSD Information Line at (802) 296-6300.

Resources for Native Veterans

Native veteran Eddie &quot;EJ&quot Crandell, Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, Army, Operation Iraqi Freedom; CollectionThe publications and websites listed on this page do not reflect a comprehensive listing of all existing resources; however, they do provide a variety of the types of resources available in print and on the Internet.


  • Cantrell, Bridget, Ph.D. and Dean, Chuck. Down Range to Iraq and Back. Seattle: Wordsmith Publishing, 2005.
  • Hart II, Ashley B. Ph.D, An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping. Lincoln: iUniverse.com, Inc., 2000.
  • Holm, Tom. Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Vietnam Veterans. University of Texas Press, 1996.
  • Johnson, Kendall, Ph.D. After the Storm: Healing After Trauma, Tragedy and Terror. Alameda: Hunter House Inc. Publishers, 2006.
  • Kahele, Rose. “In Country.” Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines. Vol. 11, No. 3. June/July 2008.
  • Kent, Jim. “American Indians Have Proud Tradition of Military Service.” Voice of America, May 2007.
  • Robinson, Gary and Lucas, Phil. From Warriors to Soldiers: The History of Native American Service in the United States Military. New York: iUniverse.com, Inc., 2008.
  • Tick, Edward, Ph.D. War and the Soul: Healing our nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Wheaton: Quest Books, 2005.
  • U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs. Indians in the War. Haskell Printing Department, 1945.
  • Walle, Alf H. The Path of Handsome Lake: A Model of Recovery for Native People. Information Age Publishing Inc., 2004.


The link below is to a U.S. Department of Defense publication, 20th Century Warriors: Native American Participation in the United States Military, which provides readers with an overview of contributions specific to that time period.

Service and Resource Sites for Veterans and their families

  • Vet Centers provide readjustment counseling and outreach services toall veterans who served in any combat zone. Services are also available for their family members for military related issues. Veterans have earned these benefits through their service and all are provided at no cost to the veteran or family. Locations for all 232 Veteran Centers are listed.
    Vet Center Website: http://www.vetcenter.va.gov/
  • Native Domain Programs: http://www.ruralhealth.va.gov/native/programs.asp
  • National Center on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Website: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/

Site designed to educate, support or honor Native Veterans

  • http://firstwarrior.com/ A photo essay website designed to recognize and honor the military service of America’s First People.

Eddie "EJ" Crandell, Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, Army, Operation Iraqi FreedomCollection of medicine objects: goard, tobacco, sage, and medicine bagLanny Asepermy, Comanche/Kiowa, Army, Vietnam

Last Reviewed: August 13, 2018
Back to Top