American Indian veterans share stories of service

Native American Veterans voiced their stories and experience last Wednesday, April 8, during the American Indian Awareness week Veteran’s panel.  Veterans included Jim Fountaine, Isaac Robertson, Jim Knutson-Kolodze, and Matthew Northrup.  While also sharing their views, they discussed their current views on in today’s military.

During the first session, a member of the audience asked the panel about the stigma over “fighting for a country that took your land.”  Matthew Northrup answered the question by saying “when the treaty was signed that seeded all the land that my people controlled, we were the military power of the region at that time. Nobody took anything from us.”

Native American people have a very long and illustrious history in all three branches of the military. According to the Department of Defense, American Indians and Alaska Natives also have one of the highest representations in the armed forces.

Robertson, an SCSU alumnus, answered the question saying, “I think that the American Indian people have always felt to be the closest to the land.”

“Even to this day, it will always be our land to defend.”

He said that the culture of building up your warriors is just something they’ve always had in his family.  “That is how you gain status, that is how you gain honor, to fight.” Isaac elaborated by saying “a lot of times, in my tribe if you refused to fight, they would put you to do women’s work.”

Isaac’s approach and fighting spirit earned him American Indian name, “Sunka Cankohan (SOON-ka Chan-kwo-hon)”, which translates to “Dog’s Backbone,” due to the appearance of the dog’s spine when he is about to fight. American Indian names are not chosen, they are earned.  They bear great significance within the tribe.

“For us, it’s really important,” he said.  “It’s what your tribe identifies you as. It’s the name you use when you talk to God.”

Director of the American Indian Center, Jim Knutson-Kolodze had a slightly different take on the military before he joined. Jim Knutson-Kolodze described himself as a naive teen during his time as a student of University of Wisconsin-Stout, but things changed dramatically for him.

“It was the hippy days,” he said.  “Picture me with long hair, bell-bottoms with the flowers on them, and it was all about peace, love, dope and it was great.” 

During his sophmore year, during a trip home for Thanksgiving break, he found his draft notice.  

“This is what I was protesting against,” he said.

Him and his friends had just walked in from a protest of the events that took place at Kent State University and now he would have to tell those same friends that he now had to fight in the war they were protesting against.

“When I came back and told them I had been drafted, they threw me out of the dorm.”  After that, he didn’t answer the draft, opting instead to enlist in the Marine Corp.

“The Marines are very hard on you, they break you down,” he said. “They will make a patriot out of you, if you weren’t already.”

Matthew Northrup agreed with Knutson-Kolondze, especially about camaraderie playing a big part in the military experience. “When you join and lift your hand to take the oath, that was something I took very seriously.”

Northrup’s experience in the military was different from the others because he did not engage in combat even though he spent three years as an infantry man. 

“That was something that stuck with me for a long time,” Northrup said. “You put in all that effort to train and train, and the war was over by the time I went over there.”

“Unfortunately I felt cheated by that,” he said. “It bothered me for many, many years. I felt I wasn’t a warrior.”  He left the military when Former President Bill Clinton took office and downsized the military.

Over the years, he has made his peace with it and today has no regrets. He spoke about how his father commended him on volunteering when there are so many people who enjoy the liberties and freedom of this country who would never volunteer to protect it.

After a broken back preventing him from joining the second Gulf war, his anger was stunted by an alarming statistic that he shared with the crowd, “twenty-two veterans kill themselves each day in the United States.”

Northrup looked to his left at Knutson-Kolondze and Robinson and said, “I don’t know if I could handle what you saw or what other veterans have seen, but I look back and I’m very glad I didn’t have to witness what you’ve seen.” 

He concluded, “I’m ok with not being a combat veteran.  I still get treated the same.”

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