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Memorial Day in Indian Country

Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian men and women have always been defenders of their lives, lands, and way of life. The call to serve in the U.S. armed forces has resonated for Native people from the country's founding-long before they were recognized as American citizens-to the present day. At the same time, Native communities have never taken casualties lightly. Native nations pay homage to fallen warriors as heroes with ceremonies, feasts, and prayers-formal, reverent memorials held throughout the year.

The United States officially set aside the last Monday of May to honor "all who died while serving" in 1971, but Memorial Day has its origins in the toll of the Civil War. Many histories date the holiday to May 1868, when a Union veterans' organization called for its members to decorate soldiers' graves with spring flowers. Five thousand people took part in the Decoration Day observance at Arlington Cemetery, honoring the 20,000 Union and Confederate dead buried there. Northern and Southern towns, however, were already holding similar memorials. In 1966, the U.S. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared the centennial of Memorial Day and honored Waterloo, New York, as its birthplace. Yale historian David Blight gives an even earlier date: May 5, 1865, when African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, reburied more than 250 Union prisoners of war and honored them with a procession of thousands of civilians and Union soldiers.

Native Americans still use flowers to decorate soldiers' and sailors' gravesites and memorials on reservations, in Native communities, and in urban settings. For many Native Americans, and non-Natives as well, Memorial Day has become a time to pay respect with flowers and other tributes on the graves of other family members and loved ones who have passed. Veterans, however, are revered in Native communities and at Native events with a status of earned respect. Some tribes still have active warrior societies, and membership is reserved strictly for veterans. Veterans are honored at powwows, conferences, and parades and are often asked to perform important ceremonies such as flag-raisings, traditional blessings, and acknowledgements. In powwows, veterans lead the grand entry carrying eagle staffs and national, state, tribal, and military flags as an important reminder that the roots of the modern powwow lie in warrior societies.


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