WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2013 – The Defense Department will celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Native Americans and Alaska natives during November in observance of National Native American Heritage Month.
November was designated as such by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. In a joint interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel, Joe Sarcinella, DOD's senior advisor and liaison for Native American Affairs, discussed the department's efforts to recognize Native Americans and their contributions to the country dating back to Revolutionary War.
“DOD is really committed to celebrating all sorts of diversity -- race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation,” Sarcinella said. “I really feel that they’re leading the charge and November just happens to be that time of the year when we can focus on Native Americans.”
In addition to his senior advisor duties, Sarcinella manages the Native American Lands and Environment Mitigation program, which deals with cleanup of DOD activities on tribal lands and other treaty lands.
“I’m also the lead trainer,” he said. “I’m in charge of managing American Indian Cultural Communication Course and the Native Hawaiian Cultural Communication Course as well where I go … instruct DOD personnel … as how to consult with indigenous people.”
Sarcinella said he also leads outreach for tribal people. “I interface with all of the federal departments and agencies on interagency collaboration and working with Native American governments.”
Native American Heritage Month “is an opportunity for the department to recognize that contribution and the rich cultures that there are,” Sarcinella said. “There are 566 federally recognized tribes throughout the lower 48 [states] and Alaska.”
Sarcinella said the theme of this year's observance is: “Guiding Our Destiny with Heritage and Tradition.”
Many people don’t realize that the Indian Wars were fought “all the way through the late 1800s,” he said. “But actually, [some American Indian] tribes were fighting right alongside colonials during the Revolutionary War.”
Many people today, he said, are aware of the important contributions made by the Navaho code talkers’ in the Pacific campaign during World War II, and Sarcinella said he believes Native Americans and Alaskan natives now have the highest per capita rate of military service of any ethnic group throughout the U.S. He noted that Native Americans and Alaska natives make up almost 16,000 members of the active force, and that nearly 160,000 others are veterans.
“In 2008, President [George W.] Bush posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Woodrow Wilson Keeble, who was a Sisseton Wahpeton tribal member from Lake Traverse Sioux, and that was for his valor during the Korean War,” Sarcinella said.
In addition, there are about 6,000 Native American DOD civilian employees.
Native Americans may constitute “a small part of the population, but we contribute a lot,” Sarcinella said.
The Defense Department also wants to increase those numbers through outreach.
“The Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity -- they do a lot of outreach with different professional organizations.”
Sarcinella also spoke of DOD’s outreach efforts with the American Indian Sciences and Engineering Society, and SAIGE -- the Society of American Indian Government Employees.
“University outreach is a big one too,” he said. “Reaching out to different tribal conferences and gatherings, like [the] National Conference of American Indians.”
Sarcinella noted that President Barack Obama created the White House Council on Native American Affairs, and DOD submitted its list of goals to increase outreach and partnerships with Native American governments.
“It's a new angle that DOD is taking,” he said. “It's not so much consulting with tribes but actually considering creating ongoing relationships with them. It's really an exciting time right now.”
Sarcinella said the best thing Native Americans and Alaska natives can do for themselves is “professional development and education.”
“Education is a huge priority in Indian Country,” he noted. “With that education, and trying to give yourself newer opportunities and develop those skill sets that you have, there's a great amount of opportunity at DOD.”