Airman Shares How Her Native American Heritage Has Impacted Her Military Career

By Airman William Tracy

November is National Native American Heritage Month and in honor of the occasion, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittinie Alvarez, a reports and analysis noncommissioned officer in charge in the 50th Security Forces Squadron, shared the impact her Native American heritage has made in her life.

Alvarez, a member of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes, grew up on the Fort Hall Shoshone Bannock Indian Reservation in Idaho.

“One of my favorite memories is when I was 16 years old,” Alvarez said. “I was spearfishing salmon on a river with my family in the middle of a forest in rural Idaho. Our people have done this for hundreds of years, and it was a pretty normal annual fishing trip for myself and my family. I [had] just caught a salmon and was walking back to camp when a group of random college students drove by, stopped and called out to me saying ‘Are you an Indian?’ I’m dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. ‘Yes’ I called out. They asked to take my picture and drove off. That’s when I realized that our heritage was a bit different than the normal American upbringing.”

Although stereotypes toward Native Americans have occurred within U.S. society for generations, Alvarez said she welcomes the chance to educate people on her tribes and Native American lifestyle.

“When I was younger, I used to be a bit offended, but I couldn’t be mad because people were genuinely curious,” she said. “I would tease and say, ‘I don’t use a car, I use my horse – it gets great grass mileage.’ Then I would let them know I live in a typical American house and it is not much different than any other house in America.”

Alvarez said joining the Air Force gave her more opportunities to share her unique perspective, including running a Native American educational booth for Schriever Air Force Base’s annual Diversity Day event last year, located in Colorado.

“We wanted to educate people,” she said. “I feel everyone, regardless where they are from, brings unique assets and perspectives to the Air Force. I just provide one more perspective from a sea of diverse cultures, backgrounds and experiences.”

Alvarez is one of more than 30,000 Native Americans serving in the U.S. military, and part of the more than 5 million Native Americans living in the U.S. today.

Ira Hayes, second from left, a U.S. Marine and Native American from the Pima tribe, helps raise the U.S. flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi in the middle of the Battle of Iwo Jima at Iwo Jima, Japan, on Feb. 23, 1945. The photo became an iconic image of U.S. service members’ valiance during World War II, and made Ira Hayes a war hero on the home front. | Photo credit DVIDS/Joe Rosenthal

U.S. military history is marked with the service and sacrifice of Native American service members, such as Ira Hayes, U.S. Marine and Native American from the Pima tribe. Hayes was one of the men pictured in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” which lifted morale among soldiers and civilians alike. Other notable Native Americans in the U.S. military include the famous Navajo code talkers, whose exclusive language, coupled with other tribal language code talkers, formed a network of cryptic communications that aided the U.S. and its allies’ war efforts in World War II.

Alvarez said she is one of many from her tribes who has served in the military, and the stories she heard growing up inspired her to join the Air Force.

“My reservation has many military veterans; so much that the Military Order of the Purple Heart announced that the Fort Hall Reservation will be known as the first reservation in the United States to be recognized as a Purple Heart Reservation,” she said. “I have grown up listening to our veterans tell their stories and sharing pictures.”

She added that the tradition of military service among Native Americans runs deep and there are many similarities between the military and the Native American lifestyle.

“A large amount of Native Americans respect military personnel and we consider them warriors for our country; holding ceremonies, honoring them in powwow grand openings and prayers,” Alvarez said. “Tribes vary by location and people depending on where you go. Some are bigger or smaller, somewhat like a military base, but without any fences or physical barriers. A lot of what we do is comparable, like having our own special jargon, having ceremonies for promotion and more.”

Former President George H.W. Bush established National Native American Heritage Month in 1990 to recognize the positive impact Native Americans have made in U.S. history. November was chosen because the month concludes the traditional harvest season and is a general time of celebration for Native Americans throughout the country.

Alvarez said “Oose” – thank you in Shoshone – to the Air Force for the opportunity to share her heritage and strengthen it through diversity.

“Diversity is essential to growth and prosperity, whether it is in military or civilian life,” she said. “It brings different perspectives of experiences, cultures, genders and ages all together to understand one another.”

-This story was originally published on dvidshub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.

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