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Rocky Boy has many serving

 


If sending a son or daughter to war is a great burden, David Russette is a veritable Atlas. Russette, a Rocky Boy resident, has two daughters serving in the Navy.

Crystal Russette, 23, has been serving on the USS Frank Cable for more than a year, and Tashina Russette, 20, was deployed to the USS Carl Vinson last month, Russette said.

Russette is optimistic. "They're doing good. They enjoy military life. I'm really proud of them." He said he's not too worried because they're on aircraft carriers, far from the ground war.

But in his personal stake in this conflict, Russette is perhaps emblematic of Rocky Boy as a whole. Despite its small population, the reservation has 30 people on active duty in the military.

On Monday, the Chippewa Cree tribal council will hold a dinner at Rocky Boy High School honoring the troops from Rocky Boy as well as veterans from prior wars.

As a group, American Indians are "probably serving at the highest percentage of any population in this country," said Wayne Stein, a professor of Native American studies at Montana State University-Bozeman.

About 14,500 Native Americans were serving in the military in 2001, not including the reserves or National Guard, according to the Military Family Resource Center. That was about 0.9 percent of the Indian population in the United States, which was slightly higher than the representation of blacks and whites in the military. About 1.1 percent of Rocky Boy's population is active-duty military.

It is common for American Indians to be disproportionately represented in the military, especially during wars, Stein said.

"The very first thing you have to remember is that no matter what government controls the U.S., this is still their land," Stein said. "They feel an obligation to protect it."

That doesn't necessarily make it easier for them, though.

Sandy Belcourt of Rocky Boy, whose son Jason Torivio is stationed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf, said her son was expected to be home in late January. The ship made it as far as Australia, but received orders from the president to turn around.

"(Jason) called me on New Year's Day and told me they had orders to stay," she said. "I was really excited about him because he was coming home. "When he told me, there was a moment of silence," she said. "But I told him I loved him and that I hoped he would be home soon."

Belcourt said that for a long time Jason had been calling on the phone every week. But March 3 was the last time she has been able to talk to her son, she said. She said that even though she talks with Jason's military recruiter often for updates and encouragement, "He's my only son that's in the military and I have no idea what's going on."

Torivio's girlfriend, Elisha Grimwood, 19, who is raising the couple's 16-month-old son, said she feels Torivio is safer on a ship than he would be on the ground.

"It's kind of scary, but I know it's kind of what he wanted to do," she added.

Cpl. Angela Duran, 30, of Rocky Boy is now stationed in Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Wash., with the Army, and will be shipped out to Kuwait next week, her mother, Linda Duran, said Wednesday.

Duran said Angela is not the first member of the family to go to war against Iraq: Her son Manuel Duran Jr. fought there for the Army during the first Gulf War. "I feel more scared because now they're talking chemical weapons," she said. "With Desert Storm you didn't hear much about that even though they might have had them."

Linda Duran is taking care of Angela's two sons, ages 3 and 5, while Angela is away. "They're too young to really understand what's going on," she said, so she tells them Angela is "going to play in the big sandbox." "They seem to understand that," she said.

Angela's father, Manuel Duran, is no stranger to war worries. When Manuel Jr. was in the first Gulf War, he said, "Sometimes he'd call me and he'd have to get off the phone because the missile was coming or whatever.

"It's made me a little gray-headed," Duran said. But he said that, unlike his wife, he is calmer this time around.

"Hopefully it'll get over by the time she gets out (there)," he said.

The parents say the reservation community has been very supportive.

Belcourt said she received a letter from tribal council chair Alvin Windy Boy Sr., and also got calls from Rocky Boy High School and the senior center asking for contact information for Jason.

"They're making a book so people can write to them," she said.

Belcourt said the troops from Rocky Boy are "honored and respected."

"They've really got real good support up here," said Russette. "You know they're worried, but they're real proud of their children too."

The parents all said they support the war effort. Stein said American Indians are probably less divided over the war than the American public as a whole.

"I think even considering how the country's kind of split, if you went to the Indian community there's a much greater support factor," Stein said.

That does not necessarily mean that American Indians like President Bush, he said, but they do feel honored to serve their country.

Part of this feeling, he said, is the "warrior myth" aspect of American Indian culture. "Indian people have this great respect for warriors and that has actually been enhanced in contemporary times."

"It's an honorable place to belong in terms of our society," he said. While many Vietnam veterans returned to a population that shunned them, Stein said, American Indian veterans for the most part escaped ostracism. "It was a big deal when they came home, especially when they went back to the reservations," Stein said, adding that tribes held honor songs and dances for their soldiers.

That tradition of honoring warriors seems to have played a role in the enlistment of the Rocky Boy recruits as well, particularly those whose relatives served in the military.

"The reason they joined is that both their grandfathers were in the service and they're very close to them," Russette said of his daughters.

Belcourt said her son felt a similar desire to follow his elders when he joined.

"First, he wanted to join the Army because both of his grandpas were in the Army," but he ended up liking the Navy recruiter better, Belcourt said, adding that her son also had uncles in the Army and the Marines.

"Ever since he was small he had these G.I. Joe (toys) and he still has them today," Belcourt said. "I think that was what he was planning to do anyway."

But there was also a more practical aspect to her son's decision, Belcourt said: He wanted a job that was secure, and to learn skills.

This is a major factor in American Indian military participation, Stein said, because people in the military can get skills, money for college, and even a career.

"Economically, the military has been very good to Indian people," Stein said. "It's the first place where Indian people were able to get a fair shake in our society."

In the military, Stein said, enlisted troops are treated equally, and promoted on merit.

"It affords them - especially the reservation people - a way out of a pretty poverty-stricken environment," Stein said.

David Russette said his daughters feel they've been treated well.

"They both like it and they like the way they're treated," Russette said, adding that Crystal finished top of her class in boot camp in August of 2001. "She said everybody got treated the same when she entered," Linda Duran said of Angela. "Nobody was showing any favoritism. She was just a soldier."

Belcourt said she is thankful for the opportunity the military provided her son. "I'm glad he did something with his life. I don't know what he would have done if he hadn't gone," Belcourt said, adding that her son could not work on the reservation because he is not an enrolled member of the tribe.

Manuel Duran said education was the draw for Angela, who has been taking classes at Montana State University-Northern, and was expected to graduate in May before the war broke out.

"Well, she got a good deal for college and stuff, so she could get through college," he said.

But while the advantages of entering the military are clear, it doesn't make watching the war any easier, and technology that allows minute-to-minute coverage of the war can make things even harder.

"Of course I'm worried about him, and you know, he told me, he said, 'Mom, I don't want you to watch the news,' and he wasn't the only one," Belcourt said. She said she tries to limit herself to watching the news in the morning before work, but it's not always possible in a society saturated by images of war.

"It's kind of hard because wherever you go, it's everywhere," Belcourt said.

She said she went to a Great Falls Wal-Mart store this weekend and the war was showing on the store's television sets.

Belcourt does her best to keep a brave face, because there is more at stake than her own emotions. "I have a younger daughter here. I don't want to let her see me cry."

Stein said that American Indians have been involved in U.S. wars on one side or another since the Revolutionary War, but that the modern phenomenon began in World War I.

"What's important about that is that as Indian people joining active service in World War I, they became the first citizens of the U.S." among their people, Stein said, noting that American Indians as a group were not granted citizenship until 1924.

After World War I, he said, Indian participation rates increased, and they joined the military in great numbers in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.

And while some might see a curious irony in the fact that so many tribes that fought against the U.S. Army in the 19th century served it so devotedly in the 20th, Stein said the two may in fact be linked.

"It might even have some roots in the fact that the U.S. military was pretty much considered an honest enemy," Stein said. "It was pretty much straight up - it's not politics."

Whatever the historical reasons, today the military is as popular as ever among American Indians, Stein said.

"It's considered a very honorable way to serve your country," he said.

 

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