Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. N.C. --
Did you know November is Native American Heritage month? The month is so designated to remember the self sacrificing contributions Native Americans have made to the United States.
Many of the people who attended the Native American Heritage Celebration Nov. 5 didn’t know what to expect while taking the elevator to the galley at Camp Lejeune’s Naval Hospital. Whispers of bewilderment spread among the crowd. Still, curiosity had gotten the better of them and there they were. The attendees received an eye-opening look into the culture of one of the country’s unfamiliar tribes.
“I was put into a body bag and presumed dead,” said former Army Staff Sgt. Jimmy Goins, current chairman of the Lumbee tribe. Goins’ opening line caught the attention of the entire room.
Goins served with the 82nd, 504th Airborne Infantry Unit in Vietnam. He was a squad leader, but was always designated as a point man, usually the first to go down in the line of fire. He felt he was selected due to the racism that occurred regularly at the time, said Goins.
Goins was at war during the Tet or the “New Year” Offensive, which was one of the roughest campaigns led by Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.
Goins and a platoon of approximately 25 infantrymen were patrolling around the Mekong Delta, near Saigon, which consisted mostly of muddy rice patties and flat, open terrain. The men were sitting ducks.
By the time they were ambushed, they had been patrolling for approximately nine days — twice as long as the usual three to five set to minimize possible staph infections, malaria scare, exposure to highly toxic pesticides and herbicides, and a buffet of varietal tropical diseases. When the fire fight started, Goins and seven members of his squad were separated from the platoon. Rounds were fired from the left, the right and front of them.
A panic-stricken “cherry,” or “boot” as Marines called them, started to make a mad dash for his life. He was immediately shot down. Goins instantly ran to his aid. There was a grenade explosion which hurled shrapnel into more than 90 percent of his body. Goins was pronounced dead on the scene.
The tension of the now silent room could be cut, even with the dullest tomahawk. Did the crowd hear correctly? Did this man in front of them seriously say he had risen from the dead? Goins told the tale of his incredible journey from the fringe of life to death and back again. His near-death experience earned Goins the Purple Heart.
“The only thing that saved me was the mud and the water,” said Goins. “It absorbed most of the impact of the grenade. I woke up seven days later in the hospital with 2,300 stitches. They even sent a telegram to my parents to inform them I was dead.”
The audience received the story of a lifetime, one they had never expected to hear. Goins is just one of the many Lumbee veterans who served throughout the history of this nation.
“In 1956, U.S. Congress recognized the name change of the Lumbee tribe, but denied the tribe any federal rights and benefits as a Native American tribe,” said retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Furnie Lambert Jr., a Lumbee tribe councilman from Maxton. Up until then, the Lumbees had several different names. But in 1953, it was finally given its official status by the state.
“Today, the Lumbee tribe is approximately 56,000 strong. It is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and ninth largest in the nation,” said Lambert.
Members of the tribe reside in four counties in southeastern North Carolina; Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland. They have existed for several hundred years but only recently received state recognition. They have been fighting for full status as a federally recognized Indian tribe since.
From an outsider’s perspective, it is not easy to comprehend why Native Americans would rather isolate themselves from the general population. For hundreds of years, however, the Lumbees have chosen to live separately.
Their pride is what has persevered. They do not question their lifestyle of remaining away from the rest of society and often members of the Lumbee go back to their tribe after they complete their education or military duty, said Lambert.
To the Lumbee tribe, and to the tribes of the rest of the Native American population, who choose to segregate themselves, seclusion and isolation, is as simple as breathing air; it is about pride.
The Lumbee’s pride may be misinterpreted as hubris, but the love for their ancestry, their history, their bloodline, runs thick and true. Their pride is the catalyst for the culture to survive.
“We stick together for survival; that’s how we have survived and flourished for 400 years,” said Goins. “We were raised in such an extended family and tight-knit community, and then you go to the Army or the Marine Corps and it’s such a culture shock. Wow. That first week I was in the Army, I was actually allowed to sit with white people. I felt like I was second class. Like you shouldn’t want or deserve certain things that whites had.”
When members of the tribe decide to break away to pursue an education or join the military, they experience a life-altering revelation.
“The military was the first time I was exposed to the white population,” said Goins. “I went from first grade to 12th grade with American Indians. We were used to being the majority within the community. We go to church with Indians, school with Indians, every aspect and facet of our lives were with Indians. When we travel outside that community to go to school or to join the military, we find out we’re not predominant. It’s kind of hard.”
Despite the discrimination and racism many of the tribe’s people experienced while serving their country, it didn’t alter their desire and commitment to join or remain in the military.
“When I signed my enlistment papers with the U.S. Army, it was the worst experience I had with them,” said Goins. “It had a box for white, black and other. So, I crossed out other and wrote Indian.”
Not once did Goins display an ounce of contempt about the anger he felt toward racial isolation during his service. To the contrary, he showed much humor through fits of hearty laughter to brush off his past. Perhaps this is the attitude that has allowed generations of Lumbees and other Native Americans to serve their country for centuries.
“When I joined the service, nobody asked me, nobody encouraged me, but I knew it was expected of me,” said Goins. “My grandfather, my father and his brother had all served; my grandfather in WWI, my father in WWII and a couple of cousins in Korea. It was not just my family, it was all of us. I’ve got three grandboys and they know what they’re going to do.”
The Lumbee believe it is a calling of unquestionable duty to serve their country, even if the country turned its back on them by not recognizing the Lumbee as a federally distinguished tribe. However, the Lumbee’s absolute love for this country is obvious by the nearly 5,000 Lumbee veterans out of 9,500 veterans in Robeson County alone.
“It’s just a duty that we have to our homeland, to a land we are so connected to, to a land we love so dearly,” said Alex Baker, public information and relations for the Lumbee tribe. “We have seen an increase of enlistees even though we are one of the highest minority groups that were enlisting already. We have seen that surge. It has to be related to our homeland pride, and that tradition of 1,000 years is something no society can break.”
It is not surprising Goins and Lambert so eagerly served, despite the negative portrayal of Native Americans, lack of knowledge and no formal recognition of them. After all, their predecessors, including Lumbees, and other Native American tribes, have all done the same to preserve the freedom of this nation.
Native American Heritage month shares a place with Nov. 11 Veterans Day, and some believe, rightfully so. Native Americans have been fighting for this country as far back as the Civil War. They were part of the original Rough Riders, fighting alongside Pres. Theodore Roosevelt at the “Assault of San Juan Heights,” Cuba, the bloodiest battle of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
During WWI, approximately 12,000 Native Americans bravely served on the frontlines of France. In World War II, the amount of Native Americans nearly doubled to an astounding 21,000.
The people of this nation have forgotten about the invaluable contributions of code talkers, not only in WWII but also in WWI.
Navajo code talkers were the legendary heroes of the Marine Corps, which ultimately inspired the Hollywood movie “Windtalkers,” however, the Army also utilized Cherokee, Choctaw and Comanche soldier code talkers during both World Wars.
The reason Native American code talking was highly successful was the effective speed of vital secret tactical messages transmitted via telephone or radio communications based on codes in their native language vice codes based on ciphers such as Morse.
Morse code often took hours longer than Navajo code talk, which merely took minutes. In addition, fewer than 30 non-Navajos knew of the vast difficulty of this language that was not in any written format.
Navajo code talkers participated in every assault the Marine Corps conducted in the Pacific during 1942 to1945 to include Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, and of course, the famous battle of Iwo Jima. However, the nation’s proud flag raising at Mt. Suribachi, did not include a Navajo code talker, but a quiet Pima Indian from Arizona named Cpl. Ira H. Hayes of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division.
Only recently have the contributions of Native Americans been recognized, despite the centuries of warfighting they have done for their country.
“As we move into the 21st century, American Indians and Alaska natives will play a vital role in maintaining our nation’s strength and prosperity,” said Pres. George W. Bush, Nov. 12, 2001. On this day, Bush declared a proclamation of National American Indian Heritage Month in honor of the fallen Native American service members who willingly and selflessly defended their country’s honor.
“Almost half of America’s Native American tribal leaders have served in the United States Armed Forces, following in the footsteps of their forebears who distinguished themselves during the World Wars and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf,” said the president. “Their patriotism again appeared after the Sept. 11 attacks, as American Indian law enforcement officers volunteered to serve in air marshal programs.”
November is a time to recognize the other unsung heroes who have so humbly served their country, as far back as its birth, and continue to do so, as brothers and sisters-in-arms. When celebrating and giving thanks during the upcoming holiday, when observing Veterans day, when celebrating the Marine Corps’233rd birthday, don’t forget the fellow veterans, to include the Lumbee tribe and the other Native Americans of this beautiful and proud nation.
For more information about the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, visit their Web site at www.lumbeetribe.com.