Cultures of War

For thousands of years, American Indians have protected their communities. A warrior’s customary role, however, involved more than fighting. Warriors cared for families in need and helped during difficult times. They did anything to ensure their people’s survival, including laying down their lives. Many American Indians view service in the U.S. Armed Forces as a continuation of the customary role.

A group of Kiowa men inside a tipi depicting illlustrated battles and lists the names of those killed in combat since WW II

© 2014 Nicole Tung

Members of the Ton-Kon-Gah, or Kiowa Black Leggings Society, discuss what it means to be a veteran before the start of a ceremony in memory of those who fought.

The tipi depicts battles in which Kiowas participated and lists the names of all Kiowas killed in combat since World War II. Near Anadarko, Oklahoma, 2014.

Not every tribe had a warrior tradition; many have had distinctly pacific practices, and most balanced warfare with traditions of diplomacy and peace.

Two native Hawaiian men demonstrate traditional martial arts by holding hands and streching arms in a circle on the beach

Courtesy of Jerry Walker

Naluahine Kaukaopua (on right), age 89, and James Kekahuna (both Native Hawaiian) demonstrate lua, a traditional Native Hawaiian martial art. Historically, lua masters were highly respected members of elite armies. On this occasion, Naluahine demonstrated and shared a technique that involved ‘ai (holds) specific to the Kona area. Kona, Big Island of Hawai‘i, July 1950.

Many Native nations have considered war a negative force that throws nature and communities out of balance, requiring ceremony to restore equilibrium. For individuals, ceremonies offer protection in battle and cleansing upon return to help manage the physical and psychological damage caused by combat. Families and communities often participate in ceremonies to express support, recognize sacrifice, and encourage the warrior’s return to everyday life.

Group of Native American men in traditional clothing standing around a drum singing

Zonnie Gorman, courtesy of the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona

Carl Gorman (Navajo, 1907–1998), The Black Pot Drum of the Enemy Way, 1971.

For Diné (Navajo) people, the Enemy Way ceremony heals and restores balance, or hózhó, and counters the negative effects of sustained proximity to death. One Diné veteran received a Blessing Way ceremony before he left for Vietnam and an Enemy Way ceremony upon his return home. He reflected, “When I got back I had a lot of trouble. My mother even called in one of our medicine men. It cost them but my folks had an Enemy Way done for me. It’s a pretty big thing . . . It snapped me out of it.” Both customary practice and contemporary research suggest a correlation between resolving post-traumatic stress and participation in ceremonies connected with warfare and healing.