Saving memories of Indian veterans
VFW post on the reservation is heading to new quarters
By Nancy Pasternack / The Bulletin
Army veteran Gerald Danzuka, left, and Navy veteran Marvin Ike stand with a photograph of Army soldier Elliot Palmer, who was killed in World War II, and for whom the Warm Springs Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4217 is named, in Warm Springs on Wednesday afternoon.
Navy veteran Marvin Ike holds a beaded necklace made in the shape and colors of the U.S. Navy symbol on Wednesday.
This image of Wallulatum, who was a U.S. scout in the late 19th century, is among the dozens of military portraits covering the walls of the makeshift headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4217 in Warm Springs.
Gerald Danzuka Jr., who is now 47, is the VFW post’s current senior vice commander. He served in the U.S. Army between 1986 and 1989 and spent most of the time as part of a mechanized infantry unit in camps near the demilitarized zone north of Seoul, South Korea.
Marvin Ike, now 62 and junior vice commander for the Warm Springs VFW post, was in the U.S. Navy from 1962 to 1966 and served on the USS Kitty Hawk in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam.
WARM SPRINGS - They meet now in a small, windowless space - combination storage and washroom - in a youth activities building called the Spectrum, on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
Gerald Danzuka, 47, and other members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4217 recently planned their annual Memorial Day ceremony from these cramped and noisy quarters.
"We just keep plugging away," Danzuka said of the post's 52 members - most of them inactive.
Danzuka, a tribal appeals court judge on the reservation and the VFW post's current senior vice commander, served in a U.S. Army mechanized infantry unit between 1986 and 1989, and spent most of the time in camps near the demilitarized zone north of Seoul, South Korea.
Like many on the reservation, Danzuka can rattle off a long list of ancestors who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. According to VFW numbers, about 500 Warm Springs residents spent time in uniform, many of them in combat, since the Modoc Wars of 1872-1873. The reservation is currently home to about 150 veterans.
Danzuka's father served in U.S. Army Special Forces - Green Berets - during the Korean War, and his stepfather and several uncles served during World War II. His mom served for a time in the Air Force, he said. All are now deceased.
"We're running out of the older guys," said Danzuka. "I can't think of anyone here that's left from World War II."
He and a few active members of the veteran's post, known as the Elliott Palmer Post - so named for a World War II veteran and Warm Springs tribal member - gathered recently in front of a small white house near some of the reservation's key government buildings.
The house has been promised as the group's next temporary home. They hope to move in within the next few weeks. It will become one in a long series of places the vets have occupied over the last 30 years.
A headquarters building for the group, erected by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1949 to help preserve the heritage and history of Warm Springs’ military service, fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1977.
Since then, photographs and other wartime memorabilia collected by generations of Warm Springs veterans have been lost. Members took them home for safekeeping and subsequently died or fell away from the group.
A shrinking tribal budget, and lack of attention, Danzuka said, are primary reasons for the group’s ongoing displacement and dwindling membership.
Danzuka and other active members — at most, a dozen, he said — meet just once a month.
“Usually just a few of us show up, like for Memorial Day,” said Marvin Ike, 62, junior vice commander for the post, who had come to join Danzuka outside on this cloudy late afternoon.
Ike’s U.S. Navy service from 1962 to 1966 included stints in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam on an aircraft carrier — the USS Kitty Hawk. His great-grandfather had been a scout for the U.S. Army during its battles against the Modoc Indians near the Oregon border with California in 1872.
Among the dozens of military portraits covering the walls of the post’s makeshift headquarters are copies of several warrior photographs taken more than 100 years ago.
The image of Wallulatum, who had also been a U.S. scout in the late 19th century, is among them. His descendants at Warm Springs now include many U.S. military veterans and prominent community members.
Military affiliation at Warm Springs, however, is becoming a thing of the past.
Fewer than 20 of Warm Springs’ now roughly 4,000 tribal member residents are believed to serve currently in the military. Some have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Danzuka said the role that veterans play on the reservation has diminished over the last couple of decades.
“Probably the biggest thing we do now,” he said, “is funerals.”
Military ceremonies, as carried out by tribal members on the Warm Springs reservation, are an amalgamation of Armed Forces and Indian martial traditions.
The uniforms worn for events, such as veterans’ funerals and Memorial Day services, are themselves a unique Warm Springs creation.
Danzuka shows off features of his own Indian-style tunic. The shirt was designed by a well-known community leader known as Longhouse Lucy, and fashioned from fabric with a camouflage pattern resembling the military battle dress uniform. Long pieces of ribbon are sewn onto the sleeves — a local tribal accent.
“We do tribalize things,” said Danzuka.
The customary presenting of colors is done to the beating of Indian drums, for instance, and, “we’re dancing instead of marching,” Danzuka said.
They try to stick to the VFW guidebook as closely as possible, he said of the participants. But certain modifications have to be made, both for cultural reasons, and because of the current shortage of post members.
Indian military service has always kept some of its roots in ancient warrior tradition, Danzuka said. And a few tribal elders make it their business not to let anybody forget it.
Charlotte Herkshan, a tribal member and widow of a career soldier, hosts a veterans dinner each month and leads a series of Indian crafts workshops during the winter months; the participants make beaded gifts to send to current Warm Springs service members.
Shauna Queahpama, 35, said she didn’t realize when she joined the army in 1989, “just how much my people respected warriors.”
She spent her four years of service with an air defense artillery unit in Spangdahlem, Germany, and was surprised to receive admiring letters from Warm Springs Elementary School children, and others on the reservation.
Queahpama kept some of the cards and letters. But there were gifts she received, via care package, which she savors only in her memory.
Relatives sent her hard tack and huckleberries — familiar Warm Springs foods.
“I was stingy with those,” she said, and they went fast.
Danzuka said he received dried deer and elk meat, and Ike remembers the dried salmon his mother sent him while he was in the Navy.
He and a friend made quick work of it. “We didn’t share that with nobody,” he said, laughing.
This Memorial Day, like on most, the remaining active members of VFW Post 4217 will gather in front of the tribal courthouse, where a small, stone memorial stands.
It pays tribute to Warm Springs veterans of the Modoc Wars, as well as World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Soon, Queahpama said, there may be no one to call on for help when service members return to the reservation and struggle to readjust.
Her own struggles lasted years.
When you return, she said, “you’re a totally different person than when you left.”
Danzuka gets calls from parents, who say, “How do I talk to my son? I don’t know him anymore.”
His own return to the reservation was difficult.
“It’s like going from a thousand miles an hour, to 10,” he said. “When I came back here, I said, ‘Is anybody moving? Is anybody awake?’”
He attributes whatever discipline and drive he has, he said, to his time in the military.
Ike credits the military with giving him some of his favorite memories. Like the time John F. Kennedy, then president, came to visit his ship. JFK brought with him one of his famous rocking chairs, “15 of us took turns rocking in it,” Ike said, laughing.
He got to see Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and other places he never would have seen otherwise.
But, Ike said, the return to Warm Springs — home — was inevitable. It was an important time in the lives of veterans past, and it will be for the current batch.
He looked out into the distance. “They always come back,” he said.
Nancy Pasternack can be reached at 419-8074 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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