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Code Talker blanket honors military service of Native American veterans
11/10/2016 12:00 AM
Karen Graves Pyrch, BPA’s Customer Support Services director, discusses details of her mother’s “Code Talker” blanket in the BPA headquarters lobby.
As part of Native American Heritage Month, BPA’s headquarters lobby is filled with tribal blankets loaned by employees and members of the agency’s American Indian/Alaskan Native Council. Each of these blankets contains symbols of a proud native heritage and a silent history waiting to be told.
One blanket on display was loaned by AIANC Chair Karen Graves Pyrch, Customer Support Services director. The “Code Talker” blanket, which belongs to Graves Pyrch’s mother, honors Graves Pyrch’s dad, Gerry Graves, and the history of service by American Indians in the U.S. military and to our nation.
“My dad and stepfather were both World War II veterans so the blanket has significant meaning to our family,” Graves Pyrch explains. “First, because of the recognition later given to the Indian code-talkers, but also because native people still have the highest per-capita rates of military service compared to other U.S. population segments.
Gerry Graves, Graves Pyrch’s father, was born in June 1927, in Red Lake, Minnesota. He was an enrolled member of the Red Lake Chippewa tribe, from a large family with five brothers and four sisters. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Oct. 18, 1944, served during World War II and received an honorable discharge with the rank of Fireman, First Class. On June 15, 1948, Graves enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and served honorably with the 5th Radar Calibration Detachment from the Greenville Air Force Base, South Carolina.
“I am proud of my family’s history of service to our country and of all natives and non-natives who have served and continue to serve in the military.”
According to Indian Country Today, American Indians have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups. The ethic of military service runs deep in Native American culture. When World War I started, American Indians were not considered U.S. citizens; that did not stop nearly 12,000 from volunteering to serve in the U.S. military.
By the end of the World War II, 24,500 reservation Indians and another 20,000 off-reservation Indians had served in the military. These 44,500 military members represented about 10 percent of the total American Indian population at the time. One-third of all able-bodied Indian men between 18 and 50 years of age served in the U.S. military. In some tribes, the percentage of men in the military reached as high as 70 percent. Not included in these numbers are the nearly 800 American Indian women who also served in the military throughout World War II.
In 2010, 22,569 active duty enlisted service members and 1,297 officers were documented as American Indian. At that time, the native population of the United States was about 1.4 percent and within the military, 1.7 percent. These numbers illustrate the high level of commitment Native Americans still show for military service.
Graves Pyrch believes the reasons behind this disproportionate contribution are rooted in traditional culture and that their distinctive cultural values lead American Indians to serve their country and the people of their tribes.
“One such value is their proud warrior tradition and willingness to engage the enemy in battle,” she said. “This characteristic has been clearly demonstrated by the courageous actions of American Indians in combat.”
Most, if not all, American Indian tribal cultures honor the warrior tradition as exemplified by these qualities: strength, honor, pride, selfless service and commitment to a higher duty. These qualities are a strong complement to professional military values.
“Veterans are always honored by their families and their tribe,” says Graves Pyrch. “Before going into service and upon their return, they are recognized by family and community. Recognition takes place in private family events and through public ceremonies such as tribal dances or intertribal gatherings.”
Graves Pyrch’s father and stepfather were laid to rest at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Ore.
When you see a tribal blanket, remember that each carries unique significance. Like the “Code Talker” – many have a special story waiting to be told.
History of the “Code Talker” blanket
BPA has the “Code Talker” blanket on display in its headquarters lobby for Native American Heritage Month in November.
See more information
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