Native American Women Warriors founder Mitchelene BigMan of Lodge Grass, Mont. (center) joins NAWW officers Sarah Baker of Camp Lejeune, N.C. (left) and Julia Kelly of Billings, Mont., as they prepare to serve as color guard during the White House Tribal Nations Conference in December.
Watch carefully during President Obama’s second inaugural parade this month, and you will see among the marching bands and the civic organizations a small group of women wearing bright blue dresses embroidered with the beading of their tribes and the insignia of their service. They are the Native American Women Warriors (NAWW), and they’re recognized as the country’s first all-female, all-Native American color guard.
NAWW was founded in 2010 by Mitchelene BigMan, a 22-year Army veteran and member of the Crow Nation. She served as a diesel mechanic at bases in Germany and Korea and did two tours in Iraq before retiring as a sergeant first class in 2009.
I called BigMan to ask about her time in the Army, why she founded the Warriors, and to hear what she thinks about the issues facing women and Native Americans in the military.
How did you end up in the Army in the first place?
It’s an old story for a lot of Native American women who enlist. I had to leave the reservation because of domestic violence.
It was 1987. I was in a bad relationship. But I didn’t leave until the night my boyfriend and I got into a fight, and he hit me in my face, just totally beat the right side of my face so badly. That’s when I said, “I’m leaving.” There was nothing there on the reservation for me.
But why the military? Why not just move away?
You know, I had tried going to college earlier, but I screwed up and dropped out and ended up back on the reservation and in that bad relationship. So I thought, “I need something where I have no choice but to finish.” In the military, once you raise your right hand and you go though basic training, they’re going to make sure you finish.
Originally I wanted to join the Marines, but they told me I had to wait a year, and I was like, “Well, I might be dead in a year.” They sent me over to the Army. I raised my right hand the next weekend. I was only going to do four years to get my college credit, and then go back to school. I ended up doing 22 years.
What was it like to be a Native American woman in the Army?
When I first got in, the Indian thing was hard. Some people must have thought we were extinct. They’d say, “You’re the first Indian I’ve ever met. Do you still live in teepees?” They thought, with us living on the reservation, we’re nomadic or something. They’d raise a right hand and say “How.” I was like, “How what? How I’m going to smack your teeth in because of the fact you’re making fun of me?” I was very defensive about my culture, my race. Still am.
As a female it was kind of a struggle especially since, being a mechanic, I was in a lot of all-male battalions. When I first joined up, the mindset at that time was that it was a man’s army. I ran a mechanics shop in Korea, and I would tell them, “This is the problem with your vehicle,” but they wouldn’t take my word on it. They’d take my private’s word because he was male. I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m in charge!” But they never gave me that sense of belonging.
We hear a lot about sexual harassment in the military. [The Department of Defense estimates that about 19,000 cases of sexual assault had occurred in the military in 2011.] Did you ever experience that yourself?
I experienced a lot of sexual harassment and I was raped. That happened in 1995. I was in officer’s school. I went to borrow a bat from my best friend — well, I thought he was my best friend. We both played on our company’s softball team at the time. When I walked in, the door swung shut; I didn’t catch it in time. But I wasn’t worried; he was my friend.
I didn’t make it out of that room. Well, I eventually did, but not the way I went in.
I was hurt, I was embarrassed. I wouldn’t tell anybody. I kept it to myself. People noticed that my attitude had changed, my focus had changed. They said, “You’re not as active, you’re not as involved, is something wrong?” I said no, I’m just worried about school. I never reported it. Because, according to the rules, technically, I shouldn’t have even been in a male barracks room with the door closed. So I didn’t dare say anything, because I was afraid I would be blamed and kicked out.
I came across him again, when I was stationed [elsewhere]. He wanted to talk to me, but I just gave him a look, like, stay away from me. The hairs on the back of my neck were stiff; I was shaking, I wanted to hit him. But I just walked away.
It’s not a rare experience — not just for Native American women, but for all women.
Things have changed, though, I’d say starting in the last five or so years before I retired. The Army finally acknowledged the sexual harassment. There’s been a lot more focus on sexual assault prevention. Which is good. I mean, we’re not going anywhere, we’re staying right here. Look at how many women are in the military now.
Do you think women veterans face unique issues when they leave the military?
The health thing is a big one. Sometimes the Department of Veterans Affairs is very frustrating. It seems like they fail to see that women have our own health issues, different from men’s, and you can’t compare them. Women veterans for the longest time have been overlooked. And some of us do have real problems, physical or mental or emotional.
Mitchelene BigMan leads fellow Native American Women Warriors leaders Julia Kelly and Sarah Baker as they present the colors during the opening of the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C.
People think that you can’t get wounded in war if you’re not on the front lines. And it’s men who are on the front. But what they don’t understand is that nowadays wars are fought differently. If you have a uniform on, you’re in combat. Women fight, too. We get shot at. Just because you’re not at the front that doesn’t make you less of a soldier. I got a combat action badge because I was 40 or 50 feet from a rocket attack. You’re still dealing with getting attacked, with mortars and improvised explosive devices.
The first time I was in Iraq, there were a lot of convoys that men wouldn’t do. They couldn’t find volunteers to go out on them. I was like, “I’ll do it.” Because I was thinking I always had to prove myself, to prove to the men that I wasn’t afraid, even though I was scared.
How did you start the Native American Women Warriors?
It’s kind of a funny story. I didn’t mean to start a color guard.
What happened was, two other Native American woman veterans and I went to the Denver March Powwow in 2010. I made us some dresses to wear: traditional-style dresses, red, white, and blue and Indian pink, and I sewed on our combat patches, ranks, the American flag, that kind of thing.
We were lining up for the grand entry, and all of a sudden the arena director comes running toward us. He hands me a tablet and says, “I need you to put your name, branch, your rank, the nation you represent, and the name of your color guard.” I stopped. I said, “I’m sorry sir, there must have been a misunderstanding. We’re not a color guard, we’re not in uniform, we don’t have flags.” He said, “But your dresses.” I said, “This is the first time we ever put these dresses on. We were just trying to show them off.”
He asked me if we had served in any campaign, and I said yes, Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said, “Okay then, we’re going to call you the Army Women’s Iraqi Freedom Veterans and we’re going to put you last in the line of color guards.”
When they announced us, he said, “History has been made today. I have the honor today to announce our first all-female color guard.” Man, the drums went wild. War cries, yelling, and we just froze. People started taking our pictures, inviting us to their powwows.
That’s how it started, and it just kept expanding. Later we changed the name to Native American Women Warriors so we didn’t discount the women from the other branches who wanted to join. Now we’ve got about 25 members in states all around the country. I’m making dresses like mad! I’ve probably sewed 30 of them at this point. The Inaugural Parade takes place on Sunday, Jan. 21. Mitchelene BigMan and nine other Women Warriors representing every military branch but the Coast Guard will march the route in beaded moccasins; BigMan will carry the American flag.
Minnie Spotted Wolf, Blackfeet, was the first Indian woman to enter the Marine Corps Women's Reserve in WW ll.