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Native Words, Native Warriors
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Native Words, Native Warriors

Chapter 5: Coming Home

Strength through Culture

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War is hard on soldiers. They see death and destruction. They see comrades injured or killed—and sometimes they must kill others. Some endure the horrors of being a prisoner of war. Returning to a normal life after these kinds of experiences can be very difficult. American Indian cultures have special traditions that help their warriors return home.


Healing After the War

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War affects a soldier’s well-being and makes it difficult for them to return to the everyday world. For American Indians, returning home means returning to a place—a land, a community, a family, and a culture—that you are part of, a place that you have a special relationship with. Participating in war interferes with your ability to be part of this place. It upsets the balance of life. This is why American Indian cultures have special ceremonies to help bring the soldier’s life back into balance—to make it possible for the soldier to once again live in peace and to be physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally healthy.

These ceremonies are part of the traditional religions of American Indians and are still part of life today for many American Indians. The ceremonies are powerful and have helped many Code Talkers and other returning soldiers. Many American Indians are also Christian, and the prayers and services of the Christian traditions were also an important part of the healing after war for many Code Talkers and other American Indian veterans.

Watercolor titled First Furlough by Quincy Tahoma
A Federal Indian day school at Moenave, Arizona
The Black Pot Drum of the Enemy Way, a painting by Carl Gorman
Petarsey United Methodist Church in Lawton, Oklahoma

Restoring Balance the Navajo Way

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The Navajo people have special ceremonies for returning soldiers. When a soldier returns from war, the family can decide to sponsor a ceremony for their loved one. They contact a spiritual leader, sometimes called a medicine man. The medicine man talks to the soldier and decides which ceremony will be best based on what the soldier has experienced. The Enemy Way Ceremony, sometimes called the Squaw Dance, is one Navajo ceremony used for soldiers who were in combat, captured, or wounded. The painting you see on the screen is by Carl Gorman, and it shows a scene from the Navajo Enemy Way Ceremony.

Intense preparations are made and, at the appropriate time, the ceremony is conducted. Often it includes family members and others who participate in the prayers, songs, and other parts of the ceremony. These ceremonies help the Navajo war veterans return to a state of balance, or beauty, within the universe. This state of balance is called Hozho in the Navajo language.

Christian churches were also important to some Navajo veterans. The songs and prayers of church ceremonies helped Navajo veterans who returned from war.

Listen to the quote

I had nightmares thinking about the blood. The Japanese and the smell of the dead. Rotting Japanese and they probably got into my mind. And they had a Squaw Dance for me in Crystal. And I imagine they killed that evil spirit that was in my mind. You know, that’s what it’s about. There’s a lot of stories there. But it takes a long time to talk about it. It usually takes a medicine man to explain everything properly. But it works.

John Brown Jr., Navajo Code Talker
John Brown Jr.
The Black Pot Drum of the Enemy Way, a painting by Carl Gorman

Happily may their roads back home be on the trail of pollen.
Happily may they all get back.
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty.

'Sa'ah naaghéi, Bik'eh hózhó - from a Navajo Ceremony (John Bierhorst, ed., Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature, 1974)
St. Michaels Franciscan Mission

Hear an excerpt of the Sweet Hour of Prayer. This song is sung in Christian services in Navajo churches.

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Restoring Balance the Comanche Way

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Code Talkers and other soldiers participated in spiritual ceremonies before the war to protect them and after the war to help them recover from war’s effects. The Native American Church was an important form of spirituality for many Comanche and other veterans. The church combines traditional Indian ceremonies and Christianity. The ceremonies include the ingestion of peyote, a spiritual plant that is sacred to members of the church. They last all night and are held in a tipi, where participants sing important songs and offer their prayers.

Christian services were also an important way for some Comanche Code Talkers and other veterans to offer their thanks for a safe return.

There was a peyote meeting for me at the church. I was given a piece of peyote that had been blessed to keep me from harm. I think all the others were given one, too. It must have worked, for all of us came back home. Yes, I still have it.

Haddon Codynah, Comanche Code Talker (William C. Meadows, Comanche Code Talkers, 2002)
A Comanche tipi
Petarsey United Methodist Church in Lawton, Oklahoma

Listen to an excerpt of the Comanche Hymn. This song is part of Christian services in Comanche churches.

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Giving Honor to Veterans

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American Indian communities remember their veterans’ sacrifices forever. Veterans are always respected and honored. Sometimes they are remembered in special songs that are sung in their honor. Native people often go to veterans for advice because they have strong mental abilities as a result of their many experiences.

Depending on the community, veterans are given special prominence at different kinds of tribal events. For example, at powwows veterans always lead the grand entry of dancers. They carry the American Indian Eagle Staff, the flag of the United States, their tribal flag, and other important banners. Veterans are recognized and honored on special occasions with ceremonies and dances that relate their sacrifices to the community. For example, the Comanche Gourd Dance honors veterans.

These are the lasting traditions that show respect to veterans for what they have done for the people.

The Navajo Code Talkers marched proudly in a parade in Washington, DC, in July 1983

Listen to an excerpt of the Navajo Veterans’ Honor Song. The song honors Code Talkers and all Navajo veterans of U.S. military service.

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American Indian leaders and veterans’ groups led the Grand Entry at the National Powwow in Washington, DC, in August 2005
Dancers participated in a Gourd Dance at the National Museum of the American Indian National Powwow, August 14, 2005, in Washington, DC.

Listen to an excerpt of the Tai-pe-go Start Song. This song is part of the Gourd Dance and it honors Native American veterans for their service.

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5.5 Carl Gorman Returns Home

Carl Gorman
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After the war, Carl Gorman returned home to Arizona for a short time. Even though he had been raised as a Christian, he talked about how the traditional Navajo ceremonies for warriors became important to him: “I didn't have a ceremony when I came home,” he said. “I didn't quite believe in it anymore. A medicine man that was an old friend suggested that I have one, but I didn't have the money to pay him to perform it. He agreed to do a one-night sing over me for free. I participated in the sing and felt a great weight leave my mind and body. I felt very rested afterwards. I realized then that I needed to make peace with what I had experienced during the war.” (Sally McClain, Navajo Weapon, 2001)

Carl Gorman in his Marine Corps dress-blue uniform in 1942

5.6 Charles Chibitty Returns Home

Charles Chibitty
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After leaving the Army, Charles Chibitty returned to Lawton, Oklahoma. He participated in both a Christian prayer meeting and a Native American Church ceremony to help himself recover from the effects of war and to give thanks for his safe return.

Listen to the quote

My full brother, we met in Germany and we had a couple of days together there. And when he come home then, they honored us in a big prayer meeting up there at Comanche Methodist Church.

They had a big peyote church for us (Native American Church), you know, up in the tipi ...And it seemed like I got more benefit out of that than I did there at the church deal because everything was traditional, you know. And I understand them old people when they pray. Beautiful prayers that morning. It was a religion that was here before white men ever got here.

Charles Chibitty, Comanche Code Talker
Comanche Code Talkers of the Fourth Infantry Division in 1941

Reflection and Discussion Questions

Why are cultural traditions important to the well-being of soldiers who have been at war?

What non-Native cultural traditions are practiced in the United States to honor and help returning veterans?