September 26th was Native American Day in Old Town Albuquerque,
filled with songs, drumming and dancing on the Plaza. The pow-wow was
still going on when we went to the Plaza around 8:30 that evening. The
dancers ranged in age from the tiniest two-year-olds to elderly
After watching the dancing for a time, Steve
decided to go home while I stayed and chatted with a neighbor.
Eventually the party wound down with the dancers, Navajo tribal
members, a few tourists and some locals like me staying until the end.
The MC announced that they would perform the inter-tribal
retreat, which I wasn’t sure meant the same thing as the
retreat–retiring the United States flag–that I was used to in the
Army. Sure enough, at the main canopy, they had three flags–U.S.
flag, New Mexico flag, and POW/MIA flag–as well as a Navajo tribal
totem. It wasn’t a flag as much as feathers and streamers on a pole,
but it was definitely a tribal symbol.
They called for volunteers who were veterans to participate in the
retreat ceremony. For a couple of minutes they had three of the four
needed and kept calling for a fourth veteran to carry the POW/MIA
flag. When I stepped forward, they were surprised and pleased to have
a woman veteran join them.
Participating in the inter-tribal
retreat with the Navajos has to be one of the most interesting things
I’ve ever done. The man in full Navajo ceremonial dance dress carried
the Navajo totem in front, and the three of us carried the other three
flags behind him. This is quite a change from the military retreat,
where the U.S. flag is always first and always held
higher than any other flags. The Navajo nation is a sovereign nation,
and in ceremonies the Navajo flag or totem takes precedence over the
United States flag.
The music was a Navajo chant and dance rather
than the standard U.S. military retreat tune. It was accompanied by
the drummers pounding out the beat. Navajo ceremonial dances are based
on a left-left-right-right dance step. Believe me, it’s much harder
than it looks. Try it sometime, carrying a flag.
The leader took
us to the west side of the gazebo, around the grass on the Plaza, back
in front of the canopy, and around to the east side of the gazebo. We
then lined up, and all of the ceremonial dancers in costume came by.
“You have to shake everyone’s hand,” the leader leaned over to say to me.
shake everyone’s hand I did, from the tiny two-year-old to the elderly
grandmothers. I even received a Navajo cheek-to-cheek greeting and
“thank you” from one of the women.
Sometimes it’s good to be a woman veteran. You just never know what opportunities will come your way.