West Point honors Native American Indian heritage with virtual observance

November 27th, 2020 | In Focus, News and Features
Col. Chris Oxendine, director of the Center for Environmental and Geographic Sciences and associate professor in the Geospatial Information Science Program, talked about his life growing up and living in North Carolina as a part of the Lumbee Tribe during the National American Indian Heritage Month virtual observance Nov. 19.
Dr. Sara Jager, chief medical officer at a Navajo National tribal hospital in Tuba City, Ariz., and U.S. Military Academy Class of 2000 graduate,spoke from her experience as a white woman serving the Native American people as a medical doctor on their land for the past eight years during the National American Indian Heritage Month virtual observance Nov. 19.

Story and photos by Eric S. Bartelt
PV Managing Editor

The West Point Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity hosted a National American Indian Heritage Month virtual observance Nov. 19 to recognize American Indians for their respect for natural resources and the Earth, and for their many distinct and important contributions to the United States.
The observance has been recognized in the month of November since 1990 through Public Law 101-343, and it allows Americans a chance to honor and celebrate the role the American Indian culture has played in American society, government, industry and the military.
This year’s virtual observance guest speakers were Dr. Sara Jager, chief medical officer at a Navajo National tribal hospital in Tuba City, Arizona, and U.S. Military Academy Class of 2000 graduate, and Col. Chris Oxendine, director of the Center for Environmental and Geographic Sciences and associate professor in the Geospatial Information Science Program. Oxendine is a USMA Class of 1996 graduate.
The guest speakers came with two different approaches to their speeches on the American Indian culture. Jager spoke from her experience as a white woman serving the Native American people as a medical doctor on their land for the past eight years. Oxendine talked about his life growing up and living in North Carolina as a part of the Lumbee Tribe.
The night began with the Brigade Respect Captain and Class of 2021 Cadet Jonathan-Scott (JD) Davidson discussing  the Native Americans important role in serving the United States armed services, specifically during World War II when 44,000 Native Americans saw active duty. Native American women also played a major role in volunteer emergency service while also serving in the Women Army Corps and the Army Nurses Corps.
“They served bravely and with distinction … (we’re) forever indebted to World War II veterans for not only forever changing the course of history, but they demonstrated selfless service and sacrifice in defense of global peace and security,” Davidson said. “We remember their legacy by honoring the past and for securing the future.”
Davidson then introduced Jager as the first guest speaker for the evening. Jager, who began her military career as a Military Police officer, is a pediatrician by training and was named the female physician of the year in the U.S. Public Health Service junior officer category in 2018.
However, in March, when COVID-19 was beginning to ravage through the Navajo Nation, she was named the chief medical officer at the Tuba City hospital, which is on the western side of the Arizona reservation. For someone who spent a year in Iraq from 2003-04 at the beginning of the Iraq war, Jager now stood on the front lines of fighting a pandemic.
Before that, after serving her pediatric residency at the University of Utah, Jager wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I needed to go to a place where there were underserved people who needed health care,” Jager, who performed with Army track and field team at West Point and is currently an endurance athlete, said.
Jager, who works in the Commissioned Corps in the U.S. Public Health Service, which is under the Health and Human Services department, saw firsthand the devastating effect of COVID-19 within the Arizona boundary of mostly Navajo, Hopi and Southern Paiute tribes.
“COVID-19 hit Navajo Nation first and our country was unprepared,” Jager said. “I think the Commissioned Corps could have done more in the preparation phases to help mitigate some of the crisis that has happened since then.”
Jager explained that the spread stemmed from an event at a Chilchinbeto church on March 7 where a pastor who had gotten sick passed the virus to the parishioners in attendance. Many of those people ended up sick and many died. From there, in an area that is an intersection of four states, Tuba City, which has five main hospitals and serves 170,000 people, became a hot zone for the disease.
“We were here early in this pandemic, we didn’t have the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), no coordinated response from the state or federal government, so when we were trying to figure out what this disease looked like … we had entire families claimed by COVID-19,” Jager said. “We’ve been underfunded for healthcare for 50-plus years and then the pandemic came along and blew wide cracks into our healthcare system.”
The total numbers as of last week, as another surge is hitting them, Tuba City has seen 370 COVID-19 hospital admissions where 69 patients have died and 105 intubations have been performed. Despite all that, Jager said they have been doing a great job and they have become a “COVID Center of Excellence.”
“This time around (with the surge), we have adequate PPE, we have a great screening process, we have contact tracing and we understand the disease so much better,” Jager said. “We have a few medications that can be helpful. We feel like we understand how we can prevent this disease and prevent ourselves from getting this disease and also how to treat our patients.”
The biggest piece of advice Jager said to cadets during her speech was, “You can stop the coronavirus by wearing a mask and don’t gather in groups. I get it, it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas, but don’t give COVID as a present.”
Outside of dealing with COVID-19 within the Navajo community, Jager spoke about assimilating into the community and how much she enjoys making friendships and connections with the Native American people.
“The thing I have done is coached AWSO soccer and kids who are under age 14, and working with the parents … I try to use it as a way to meet people and make connections I wouldn’t be able to make at work,” Jager said.
She said while there is a barrier to how Native Americans highly respect doctors and teachers, she tries to break that ice to relate to them on a personal level.
“I love hearing stories from my clinic staff, nurses and certified medical assistants who are mostly Navajo, except for three who are Hopi, and we get together for holidays and I love hanging out with their kids and learning their traditions,” Jager said. “I just think relationships develop as time goes on and as people see my personal commitment to the community outside of my profession with coaching of soccer or T-ball or suicide prevention at the high school … some of those interactions are less formal and a little less tell me your problems in a clinical setting — it takes away some of that hierarchical tension.”
Monica Weeks, who works with the G-6 at West Point and viewed the virtual observance, is Navajo and expressed how grateful she is to Jager for the work she has done for her people.
“I am getting emotional because it really hits home but hearing stories like these and to have heroes like yourself, it really warms my heart,” Weeks, who had at least 10 family members die from COVID-19, said. “(You’re) out there helping our people, it really gives us a feeling that there is hope and things will change.”
The next guest speaker was Oxendine, who shared his experience growing up as the oldest of three children in a small rural town in Pembroke, North Carolina, as a member of the Lumbee Tribe. He said the tribe is 55,000 strong, mostly found in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties, which are just south of Fort Bragg. The Lumbee is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi.
Oxendine said that Pembroke is home to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and the school opened its doors in 1887 as the Croatan Normal School to educate American Indians. It started with 15 students and one teacher, and before that there were no schools for Indians.
“Today, that little school of humble beginnings built by my ancestors, who cared enough to provide the land, the lumber and the labor has evolved into the University of North Carolina at Pembroke with over 8,200 students in undergraduate and graduate programs,” Oxendine said. “I mention this because without it, our community and my life would be dramatically different. UNCP is the place where my grandmother and mother received their degrees in teaching, and where I attended summer camps and was exposed to computer science and higher-level math and sciences between middle school and high school summers.
“The sacrifices of our ancestors paved an easier road for me to succeed, not easy but easier,” he added. “Let’s never forget those sacrifices that many of our ancestors made so we can sit where we are today. The seat you sit in now is because of their sacrifices.”
Oxendine reminisced about the summers where he attended the Lumbee Powwow and an outdoor theater production of “Strike at the Wind,” which tells the story of an insurgency led by Henry Berry Lowry, a 17-year-old Lumbee whose father and brother were murdered by the Confederate Home Guard in 1861. It led to an outlaw band of Native Americans, African Americans and poor whites to wage a guerilla war against the Home Guard and county elite in areas near Pembroke during the Lowry War from 1861-74.
“Looking back at all these events, the Powwow, Strike at the Wind and family reunions, they solidified the importance of coming together as a family and tribe to share our culture, celebrate life, respect our elders and all they have sacrificed and to count our blessings,” Oxendine said.
While growing up his mom was a schoolteacher and his dad worked construction. However, his dad went back to school to earn his associate’s degree at 40 years old.
“I still remember his determination to complete his degree as many nights he stayed up studying late to complete that degree,” he said.
This is where Oxendine learned his work ethic that included, before getting an official job, picking cucumbers, cropping tobacco, cutting grass, raking leaves and detailing cars before working at the Piggly Wiggly. However, it was around 11th grade, when he joined the JROTC program where he met his mentor, retired Sgt. Maj. Barney Razor.
“Upon the foundation my parents provided, (Razor) made me into a better leader and man,” Oxendine said. “Success at the time for someone from our community was defined as getting a job in a factory, in construction or landing a job as a teacher like my grandmother or mother.
“(Razor) helped me think outside of the box and helped me ask the question of what truly was possible that I had not yet imagined,” he added. “I saw the Army as an opportunity to get an education and in my senior year I enlisted in the delay entry program.”
At the same time, he applied to West Point even though no one in his community had ever gone to West Point.
“I was too dumb to know the odds were stacked against me and I learned a value lesson from this — take chances,” Oxendine said. “Fast forward a few months and I received my acceptance letter to the prep school. I was fired up.
“As I shared the news with my family, friends and teachers, you would think they would all be excited, however, my English teacher told me, ‘Chris, you’ll never make it through West Point,’ and I had a choice, either believe her or use her negative energy to fuel my fire,” he added.
While he did use that additional fuel to energize himself, West Point was an extreme challenge for him at first for an 18-year-old kid from a small tight-knit community now immersed into a 1,300-member class and 4,400-member Corps of Cadets. And academics nearly destroyed him.
“Going into Army-Navy Week my plebe year, I had an F in psychology, history and, you can probably guess, plebe English,” Oxendine said. “My biggest failure then was I didn’t ask for help from my instructors or classmates. I felt that they would think I was weak. It was a mistake, and I should have asked for help earlier.
“Thankfully, with two weeks left in the semester, I sought out that much needed help and passed all of those classes,” he added. “A few semesters later, I made the Dean’s list and remained on it until graduation. Those were tough lessons learned, but they prepared me for the journey ahead, leading me to where I am now.”
Oxendine circled his speech back to the theme of National American Indian Heritage Month, “Many Nations, One Fight,” and outside of the recognition for their contributions to the United States, he said, “For Native Americans, personal worth is not measured by assets, but honor and respect is earned from service to our families, our tribe and our nation.”
Oxendine added, “They believe in contributing to the greater good to ensure our people survive and prosper. Although Native Americans have endured a troubled history, we maintain our pride and celebrate our roots and love of nature.”
Oxendine spoke about how Native Americans have the combination of a warrior spirit and love of taking care of the land.
“Native Americans have been closely connected to nature and realized that a healthy mind and spirit were crucial to maintain physical health,” Oxendine said. “We learn to honor and protect the Earth and only take what is needed. Those are lessons modern society is just beginning to come to grips with … concepts of environmentalism and conservation have been part of the Native American spirits for hundreds of years.
“The words of an ancient Indian proverb highlight this philosophy, ‘Treat the Earth well, it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children,’” he added.
To end his speech, he provided many instances of prominent Native Americans who served our nation with distinction to include all the Native Americans who served the United States in all wars since the American Revolution.
Oxendine, who himself deployed twice with the 101st Airborne Division in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, notably mentioned Dolares Kay Smith, a Cherokee, who was the first Native American woman to graduate from the Air Force Academy. Or Lori Piestewa, who was the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving the U.S. Military during the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.
And, last but not least, 1st Sgt. Pascal Cleatus Poolaw and Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Greg Strickland who both earned Silver Stars in combat. Poolaw earned as many as 42 medals and citations, including four Silver stars, while serving in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Poolaw died in combat in Vietnam and at his funeral during his eulogy, his wife said, “He’s followed the trail of the great chiefs. His people hold him in honor and highest esteem.”
Strickland, while serving with D Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, on May 30, 2007, demonstrated exceptional courage in the face of more than 50 enemy fighters after witnessing a CH-47 Chinook getting shot down by enemy fire and then racing and protecting the crash site from Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. He was awarded the Silver Star from President George W. Bush on May 22, 2008.
Oxendine completed his speech by saying, “This is just a small sampling of Native American contributions to our nation. Native American men and women have served America with pride. Their warrior spirit is strong and stands guard now and into the future.”