KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss.-- Having a population built with diverse backgrounds affords countless opportunities for growth not only as a force, but as a nation.
“Heritage is a foundation and with a strong foundation the ceiling can be however high you want it to be,” said Master Sgt. David Whiting, 81st Medical Group diagnostic imaging section chief and Sicangu Lakota Oyate Tribe member. “Native Americans have been through so much over the years and yet, we are still here. That is something I teach to my children and others, life will be tough and throw many things on your path, but yet, you can overcome it all.”
Whiting learned his culture through the elders of his tribe, who sought to teach anyone willing to learn. Many heritage and history classes had migrated to western American culture, erasing a portion of Native American teachings.
“For our tribe, we identify ourselves by our clanships, which is very important because each clan comes from different areas of the reservation and has different meanings,” said Maj. Tanya Peshlakai, 81st Inpatient Operations Squadron flight commander and Navajo Tribe member. “Clanship on the reservation is key and if you don't know it, most elders would be disappointed and even sad for you because you don't know who you are.”
Peshlakai’s grandmother, who only spoke Navajo, made sure Peshlakai understood the significance of her clanships and Navajo traditions while growing up on the Navajo Nation reservation.
“Every heritage has their own unique customs, but not every heritage has had to face near extinction,” said Senior Airman Taylor Walkingstick, 81st Security Forces Squadron patrolman and North East Tribe of Alabama member. “We need to make ourselves known and let people know we’re not extinct. If you truly want to understand and connect with our culture most of us would gladly teach you.”
One of the most important reasons to teach others about Native American heritage is to end racism and the hate of Native Americans through understanding, said Walkingstick.
“Many people say irrational statements about Native Americans at any moment without knowing it,” said Staff Sgt. Zachary LeBlanc, 81st SFS patrolman. “Most of us will just educate these individuals and move past it, but racism should not occur at any level or to any race.”
An important reason to teach each other about heritage is the individuality that makes the world so vast and each culture diverse from one another.
“If I had not grown up with the background of seeing the struggle of my ancestors and family or the encouragement from my family to always do better for myself and family, then I wouldn’t be who I am today,” said Master Sgt. Kristal Stacey, 81st Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron specialty imaging section chief and Mohawk Tribe member. “I do not stand behind you and I do not stand in front of you. I stand with you. We all come from different backgrounds, heritages and cultures, but here we are, together.”
Mitakuye Oyasin is a phrase meaning all my relatives or we are all related, with this instilled a sense of harmony with all forms of life and really drives home the sense of respect for one another, said Whiting. This translates to his time in the military with respecting everyone regardless of rank or positional power.
“Too often we get set in our ways and unconsciously develop biases to ways of thinking about or seeing things,” said Whiting. “Everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard and respected. We cannot implement change if we can’t listen and learn to respect one another.”