‘Still, this is our land’: Larry Hott film “The Warrior Tradition” highlights Native Americans serving in the U.S. military

  • Larry Hott, left, talks with his film editor, Rikk Desgres, at Hott’s studio in his Florence home, where they finalized Hott’s new documentary, “The Warrior Tradition.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Books on Native Americans rest on a shelf in Larry Hott’s Florence studio. Staff Photo/Jerrey Roberts

  • A poster for Larry Hott's documentary, “The Warrior Tradition,” in his Florence home. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Documentary filmmaker Larry Hott, right, with editor Rikk Desgres, at Hott’s Florence home. Hott’s new movie, “The Warrior Tradition,” examines the history of military service by Native Americans. Inset photo by Jerrey Roberts. Design by Nicole J. Chotain.

  • Chuck Boers, of the Lipan Apache, says generations of his family have seen military service, including a great-great-great grandfather who was a scout in the 19th century. Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • An iconic shot that Chuck Boers, a combat photographer in Iraq, took during the Battle of Samarra in 2004.  Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • American Indian scouts, photographed in the 1870s in the Southwest. Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Patty Loew, of the Ojibwe people of northern Wisconsin, says “I think mainstream America can learn a lot from Indian service … understanding there is a spiritual component to war.” Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • A Veterans Day powwow at Comanche Nation in Oklahoma, where the tribe “adopted” non-native U.S. soldiers headed to the Mideast.  Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Navajos who served as “code talkers” for the Marines during World War II in the Pacific, where their language could not be deciphered by the Japanese. Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Navajo men recruited for service during World War II. Their language, once reviled by whites, proved vital for protecting communications on the war’s battlefields. Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Chuck Boers displays the feathers, passed down to him from generations of family members who had served in the military, that he took with him to Iraq. Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Larry Hott interviews Lanny Asepermy, a Vietnam veteran with Comanche/Kiowa ancestry, in “The Warrior Tradition.” Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Peter MacDonald, a Navajo “code talker” during WWII, was forbidden to speak his native language as a boy attending white schools. “They told us your language is tradition, tradition is an enemy to progress and all that,” he says in the film.  Image courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Rhonda Williams, an army veteran who is part Apache, says an Afghan commander became intrigued when he learned of her background and called out “Geronimo!”  Photo courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

  • Native Americans serving with U.S. forces in Iraq, including Choctaw member Debra Mooney, at far left, organized an inter-tribal powwow there in 2004. “I believe that having a powwow in a combat zone sends the message … that the Native Americans are still very much alive,” says Mooney. Photo courtesy Larry Hott/PBS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/9/2019 8:00:30 AM

On a stretch of frozen ground in South Dakota in late December 1890, as many as 300 Lakota Indians, predominantly women and children, were gunned down by U.S. troops in what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. The bloody confrontation, in which some 30 American soldiers also died, capped over three centuries of violence against Native Americans by whites in what had become known as the United States — a series of relentless battles in which Indian tribes were steadily forced from their land, with many later confined to reservations.

Yet more than a century after Wounded Knee, as a new film outlines, a greater percentage of Native Americans serve in the U.S. military than any other ethnic group in the country. In World War I, over 12,000 Native American men volunteered for service at a time when Indians had not even been granted citizenship. And during the unpopular and controversial Vietnam War, some 90 percent of the 42,000 Native Americans who served were volunteers.

Why? There’s no one answer. But a new film by veteran documentary maker Larry Hott of Florentine Films, “The Warrior Tradition,” examines the long history of Indians doing some form of military service, offering thought-provoking interviews with numerous Native Americans to shine a light on a seldom-seen part of the U.S. population.

If it seems strange that people would serve a government that had once attacked them and forced them from their homelands, consider what Peter MacDonald, a Navajo who served during World War II, has to say in the film’s introduction: “A lot of people ask, ‘Why did you join the white man’s war? They weren’t nice to you.’ Well, that may be so. Still, this is our land.”

The film, directed and co-produced by Hott, will be broadcast nationally on PBS on Nov. 11 — Veterans Day — at 9 p.m.

For Hott, of Florence, who since the early 1980s has made over two dozen films — most with his wife, Diane Garey — on a wide range of subjects, “The Warrior Tradition” seemed like a natural follow-up to the couple’s 2015 documentary, “Rising Voices,” a story about efforts to preserve the Lakota (also known as the Sioux) language and other vanishing native languages. Hott and Garey had also plumbed Native American experiences in a number of their other films, such as one on the War of 1812.

“If you’re covering American history and you don’t at least stumble over Native American issues, you’re not ranging very widely,” Hott said with a laugh during a recent interview at his home. “And when you look at the record of [military service] of Native Americans, it’s just astonishing. All 573 tribes that are recognized today have a tradition of service.”

Yet “The Warrior Tradition” might not have been made — at least not by Hott. As he explains, in 2015 he was approached about doing the documentary by John Grant, the executive producer of programming at WNED-TV in Buffalo/Toronto, a station that has co-produced a number of Florentine Film projects. It was certainly a good topic, Hott said he told Grant, but he demurred: His wife was planning to retire, he was getting on in years himself (he’s 69), and the prospect of having to do fundraising for a new film was not appealing.

“Typically these [films] take five to eight years, and there’s no clear endpoint,” said Hott. “And when you’re looking at 70 years old on the horizon, it just seemed like too much of a commitment.”

But in the early spring of 2018, Grant called Hott back. This time he had the money in hand (about $400,000) for the film, he had a guarantee of a national broadcast, and he had a strict deadline of finishing the film by the end of May 2019. Hott’s focus would be entirely on finding people to interview and shooting the footage.

He and his wife now have two grandsons they like to spend time with, said Hott, “and this is the time to slow down. But we’d always said, if a film walked through the door with money in hand, and you have a specific deadline to shoot for, why wouldn’t you do it? How could I say no?”

A tradition of military service

Good thing he didn’t, because “The Warrior Tradition” offers a fresh look at the story of Native Americans in service: not with stereotypical images of plains Indians on horseback battling U.S. cavalry, but with interviews with members of many different tribes, all of whom speak of a tradition of military service both within their families and their tribes and what it means to them — and the stereotypes they’ve sometimes had to overcome among fellow service members.

Most of the interviewees are from the Midwest and the West, although Hott did talk to some Native Americans from the East, such as a veteran from the Seneca people in New York state; he didn’t end up using that interview. “These are the stories that emerged,” he said, while also noting that no one he talked to had any concerns that he wasn’t Native American himself. “What they said was, ‘We’re so glad that the film is being done by a filmmaker we respect and [who] will get it done properly.’”

As the documentary relates, that warrior tradition had largely come to an end by the late 19th century, as the remaining Western and Midwestern tribes were shunted onto reservations, with most of their weapons confiscated; many Indian children were taken away to be raised in white homes and schools to “Christianize” them. But then came WWI, natives enlisted in the military, and after the war Indians were granted citizenship — at the same time, Hott points out, that barriers to a number of immigrants from Europe were being enacted.

“There is that irony of Native Americans being pushed off their land, discriminated against, and now they’re viewed as loyal Americans,” said Hott.

The film offers some basic history on past Native American battles, both between different tribes and with whites, with accompanying black and white photographs. There are reminders that some Indians served as valued scouts and troops for European and U.S. forces in 18th and 19th century conflicts. One interviewee, Patty Loew of the Ojibwe people of northern Wisconsin, notes that she discovered a distant ancestor who served with General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, leader of French forces in North America during the French and Indian War.

In addition, there’s an account of one of the more famous stories of Native Americans in the military: the Navajo “code talkers” of WWII (and WWI, too), who worked in communications because their language could not be deciphered by the enemy, most notably Japanese forces in the Pacific Theater. Peter MacDonald, who was forced to attend a white school as a boy and forbidden to speak Navajo, chuckles at the irony of his language later being considered an asset when he served as a code talker in the Marines during WWII.

“Here they told us that we’re no good and forget your language because your language is tradition, tradition is an enemy to progress and all that,” he says. “Now somehow they discovered that maybe Navajo language will be something that would save the war in the Pacific. And it did!”

A story told by many

“The Warrior Tradition” eschews a traditional historical/biographical approach to its narrative. There is no overarching narrator; the story is told by roughly 20 Native Americans (others were interviewed for the film but not shown on camera) whose voices are heard in one-on-one interviews and with accompanying photos and other film images.

“This movie is not one linear story,” said Rikk Desgres, the documentary’s editor. “Instead, it’s made up of all these smaller stories, all with their own narrative, and that made it different and really very special to me.”

Chuck Boers, a Lipan Apache War Chief, says his family has a long tradition of military service, one that encompasses every significant 20th century war the U.S. was involved in, as well as his own service as a combat photographer in Iraq. (An iconic shot he took of three U.S. troops, framed by a hole blown in a wall during the Battle of Samarra in 2004, ended up on the cover of a number of publications, including Newsweek.) In Iraq, Boers also carried the same eagle and hawk feathers his ancestors had carried into battle — beginning with his great-great-great-grandfather, who had been an Apache scout.

“I felt like I had my family with me to protect me,” he says of taking these spiritual heirlooms into a war zone. Boers also jokes that he called his Humvee “my war pony, my iron war pony.”

Hott says he and Desgres were entranced with these stories, but Hott also faced a dilemma in the early stages of his interviews: “I became very worried that I was going to end up making a film glorifying war. There was a contradiction between how you talk with pride about a warrior without glorifying war.

“But,” he added, “what kept coming up was ‘We don’t go into this because we like war but because of our family and tribal traditions and holding our heads up high — being as good as any other American.’”

Indeed, Patty Loew, the Ojibwe woman (she was also an advisor for the film), relates a story of asking one Native American veteran why he had enlisted. “He said that his people had signed a peace and friendship treaty with the U.S. government in the 1800s, promising to protect the nation should it ever need its services. And he said even though the United States has broken every treaty it ever negotiated ... ‘I’m still obligating my end of the treaty.’”

And Chuck Boers adds, “Being a warrior’s not necessarily about going out and killing people. It’s about keeping the peace as well and making sure that our traditions and cultures are staying in line with our values — protecting our land, our family, our community. And that’s part of the warrior tradition.”

The documentary also explores the spiritual element many Native Americans bring to their military service — and how that can be used to help veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Street Disorder. Many tribes work to address PTSD in those vets, Hott says, by having “welcoming ceremonies” for returnees: “It doesn’t cure PTSD, but it does give them someone to talk to.” He also notes that Indians who came back from Vietnam were “treated with great respect” by their communities, compared to the checkered response many non-native Vietnam vets received.

Another sequence features a powwow, held on Veterans Day, at the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma, where the tribe invites a number of non-native U.S. troops from nearby Fort Sill to take part in the ceremony. The young soldiers, bound for the Mideast, are “adopted” by the tribe, explains Lanny Asepermy, a Comanche/Kiowa native and a Vietnam veteran.

“We gave them the title of Task Force Comanche,” he said. “And that’s a pretty high honor. They’re going to carry our Comanche flag into a war zone and represent not only their battalion, but the Comanche Nation.”

One of Hott’s key interviews was with Dewey Bad Warrior, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, who describes a boyhood “conversation” with his grandfather that involved just sitting silently on the prairie with him for over an hour, listening to the wind and the sounds of birds and insects. “He never once said one word,” says Bad Warrior. “And I was able to learn patience with that…. I thought it kind of saved my life a few times [in Vietnam] because we had to sit there in ambush for a long, long time without moving… that’s how I learned silence is power.”

“It took a long time to get him,” Hott said of the interview. “But I know from years of filmmaking that it’s worth it for that one story, and he nailed it.”

The film also includes footage from the protests in 2016 at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota against construction of a huge oil pipeline through the region; as many as 12,000 Native American veterans joined those efforts at some point.

“Rikk and I liked the fact the pipeline protests were directly connected to the warrior tradition,” said Hott. “You’re loyal to the government, you do your [military] service, but you come home and you’re loyal to your people, so you protest against the government.”

Desgres says that as a film editor, he looks above all for emotion in the stories people tell: “You look for people who can get to the heart of what they experienced, whose feelings really come through.” Perhaps the most moving story comes from Rhonda Williams, who traces her roots to a number of tribes, including the Apache. In a story told partly with animation, Williams, an army veteran who served in Afghanistan, describes speaking, through an interpreter, to a colonel with Afghan security forces who became excited when he learned she was Native American.

When Williams related that she was part Apache, the Afghan leader yelled out “Geronimo!” — and that, says Williams, “brought tears to my eyes and it still does.” When Williams asked the colonel if he knew about the legendary Apache chief, he said “something very powerful, he says, ‘We thought they wiped you out.’ And I said, ‘No! We are still here.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

For more information about “The Warrior Tradition,” including a trailer for the film and some additional short videos, visit pbs.org/wned/warrior-tradition. More information on Florentine Films/Hott Productions can be found at florentinefilms.org.


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