George Bennett Sr. isn’t ashamed to be Alaska Native or a U.S. veteran. Nearly 50 years after he left Vietnam, he’s proud to be both; it’s who he is. It hasn’t always been that way though — he said it took him about 30 years to find a bit of personal peace.
Wearing a Vietnam War veteran baseball cap, Bennett unofficially led a workshop at the Alaska Federation of Native (AFN) convention at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. He and about a dozen other Alaska Native veterans squished into every chair, nook and cranny of a room too small for the number of attendees.
They gathered at the request of the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, Kevin Gover. Hours earlier, Gover presented at the convention and announced plans to build a National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“Native Americans have served in every conflict from the Revolutionary War to the global war on terrorism,” Gover explained.
Gover said 44,000 Native Americans served in World War II and another 42,000 served in Vietnam. Currently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates more than 31,000 American Indian and Alaska Native people are on active duty — men and women.
Now, he wants to ensure they’re recognized. The memorial is still in the planning stages and he’s looking for input from Native peoples from across the country; including Alaska Native veterans attending AFN.
He listened, nodded and shared parts of his story as Alaska Native veterans attending AFN brainstormed how to bring the memorial to life, in a way that remembers all Native American veterans.
“If I was going through (the memorial), I wouldn’t be praising the material aspect,” Bennett said addressing the room. “I would be looking at it as a highly sacred place and very highly spiritual. I wouldn’t say, ‘I wonder who the artists is that created it.’ I would be talking to the spirit of those veterans who are no longer amongst us.”
Bennett, a 71-year-old Tlingit man from Southeast, fought in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. In combat, he protected those who tried to insult him and his culture with degrading terms. He, like many Native Americans who fought in wars before him, were forced to do some of the dirtier jobs in the military.
He stopped dancing, he stopped singing and he stopped speaking his language. At war, he lost touch with his culture.
“Well you know, sometimes when you get into those things, and you’re in combat, you forget about your own personal identity and you just become what you were trained to do.
“A lot of Native people were ashamed when they came back because they violated their cultural values. Never hurt your fellow human being,” Bennett said.
He also returned to a country divided and protests against the conflict he fought and lost “brothers” in. For those reasons, he struggled.
“Those were dark times,” Bennett said.
He’s come a long way though. He wants Native Americans from across the country to find peace, too. He believes the memorial would be a step in healing for many who share similar stories.
“I think the memorial will be a reminder of who we are and what Native Americans are from a spiritual perspective and who we were before we were in the military,” Bennett said.
If everything goes as planned, the exhibit will open in four years. But before anything moves forward, the veterans at Friday’s workshop want the land to be blessed by Piscataway tribe, whose land is in the U.S. Capitol.
“For me, its kind of like totem poles,” Bennett explained. “They don’t tell you a story, they remind you of one.”