A Song for the Veterans
Well, Native Heritage Month is off and running. A couple of workshops at an area college last week, a concert (with Janice Torres and Lenny Stevens along) last Thursday night, Caledon Arts & Wine Festival over the weekend, presentations at two area military bases this week and a Native Cultural event coming this weekend.
Visiting military bases is always a special time, maybe more so this year with the events at Fort Hood and because I now have two nephews serving, one on active duty with the Navy Reserves and one just finishing basic training with the Army.
At concerts, people often ask about the lyrics to “Warrior Song” (from the Dancing the Full Moon project). Since this is Veterans Day, I’ll take the opportunity to share a bit about it.
The lyrics and tune came in a series of dreams while I was visiting by Dad in Ohio over the holidays some years back. I wasn’t really looking to write this kind of song, but when things show up in dreams, it’s best to pay attention. Each verse honors a different generation of veterans, including individuals from my family. The first verse is for World War II era vets, including my Dad’s older brother who served with the Marines in the Pacific Theater (and earned two Purple Hearts), his older sister, who served with the WACs and her husband (Ojibwa descent) who served with the Navy in the European Theater. The second verse honors Vietnam era vets, including my step-father who had two tours of duty there. The third verse honors those currently serving, including Laurie Piestewa, the first Native American woman killed in action over seas (of course many of our dear women died defending their home lands over the past five hundred years), and now, of course, my two nephews. The remaining verse calls all of them home to do the work needed here.
Throughout the song, the question returns, “How do you earn your feather now?” The traditional way of the warrior has largely been replaced by modern mechanized mass killing. I remember hearing a member of one of the western tribes describe his People’s traditional requirements for earning “War Chief” honors. I am probably forgetting some things, but they included actions like “leading a successful war party and returning all of your men safely”; “stealing your enemies weapon”; “stealing your enemies horse”; etc. I was deeply struck by the fact that it was entirely possible to earn full war honors without killing or even harming another person. The traditional way of the warrior for most of us Native folks seems to have been more about individual courage and resourcefulness and less about simply killing as many of the enemy as possible to impose your will upon them. Although always ready, of course, to defend the community from immediate dangers.
The English complained that American Indians did not know how to make war properly, because we would “fight” all day and hardly anyone would get killed. Sometimes no one would get killed. Unfortunately, I think we’ve learned all too well in the mean time. I sometimes think that being on a continual war footing for five hundred years as a matter of survival has changed our understanding of the traditional warrior’s path. And not necessarily for the better. The great Cuban singer Campay Segundo is quoted as saying that “until more people carry guitars than carry guns, the world will not change”. Carrying flutes would help, too. For me, what is inexcusable these days is that our returning vets often have so much trouble getting the medical, psychological and spiritual help they need to transition back into society.
To any vets reading this, a heart felt thanks for the service and sacrifices you and your families have given. This song is for you.
On the music side (since this is supposed to be a music blog), a grinding roots/blues rock seemed to be the right feel for this song. It was originally in e minor. We recorded it in Eb minor to get it into a more comfy range for Janice and now usually do it even lower in concert. D minor is happier for the guitar, lets Janice stay in her power house range and gives the whole song a darker, more powerful vibe.
OK – see ya next week.