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.

Responses to "Mitchelene BigMan: Native American woman warrior (Photos)"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Warms my heart to read this article. What a fantastic way of honoring your heritage and service to the US.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Totally brought tears to my eyes. Well done, Native American Women Warriors. Peace to you all.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Awe inspiring

  4. Anonymous says:

    What a wonderful story,and Thank You for your Service.People think Army, Navy.Marine's and war this is a Man's world.NO!This is OUR WORLD,A World OF many colors and Different Kinds of People.One where we can live and raise our Family's .Because of the the BRAVE WOMEN AND MEN OF ARMED FORCES.And Hundred's of Thousands of men and Women Like you!What a Beautiful Tribute to The Native American Woman Warrior's.Job well done.I hope some time before I leave this Beautiful Country I will have had the PRIVILEGE to have seen you in your Color Guards.Thank you for telling your story.I hope someday you will be in Ohio,Around the Columbus AREA ,God Bless AND Keep you Safe!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your service. And your patience. Wishing you all much peace and love.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I too was in the army n it was a terrible spot in time. The end of WAC to EL.Talk bout sexual harrassment n rape. But a surviver.

  7. Anonymous says:

    AMAZING! Thank you for all you've done and continue to do! Made me cry BIG TIME!

  8. DJ Battiest-Tomasi, MBS, NCP says:

    All you Woman Warriors are the best role models for our American Tribal Nations. Many Americans do not realize the life of our People in the United States. I feel very Proud my Sisters for your Service to All our Relations.
    Yakoke,Yokoki-(Chahta)-D.J. Battiest-Tomasi

  9. Anonymous says:

    I am truly inspired by your story. I'm not a Native American but I've been exposed first hand with First Nation heritage and some how feel identified as a spiritual being and a woman. It gives me much pride to learn your story and should be told to young women everywhere. Thanks for serving our country and being an example of brave warrior women.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this. Beautiful dresses & native women.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I agree what a total inspiration and great role models for our youth to look up to!!

  12. Jacque McNair says:

    Thats awesome, you all are just the type of positive role model young women of any race need. It makes me proud to say that i am native and have many veterans in my family. I have a sister serving in the Navy now, she was pinned a Chief in Aug 2012. She enrolled after high school graduation 1999, she has accomplished so much and i couldnt be more proud of her.

  13. Anonymous says:

    very inspiring story-thank you for sharing, young people, especially young women will be inspired by your story.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Thank You for that beautiful heart touching story. Thank you for serving. You are what I call a Super Warrior,being that of all you've gone thru and still strong makes you a special woman of honor. I hope to meet you and your Color Guard someday on pow-wow highway.Pat Forrester/Lenape IDLE NO MORE....

  15. Anonymous says:

    Same here...

  16. Anonymous says:

    Thank You for your service. You all are inspiring for rest of us women.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Althohugh I am not Native American Women, I was so deeply inspired by your story. It brought tears to my eyes. You have been through so much and persavered. I only hope that your organization continues to grow as the positive role model it has become for not only Native American Women but all women veterans. Thank you for your service.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I am so proud of these Native Women and the courage that it took to even join to military. I was in the military for 33 yrs and would have been very proud to have served along side of them. I would not have a problem with them as my superior. I am very sorry that you or any other person was degraded attack. You are true heros, Thank you for your service. Yes women do have different problems and the military should understand that.

  19. Tania says:

    I wish the tribes well in the haerenga be strong and together and most of all let the children play and have fun with the old people The time is near all will be good you will see.

    Te Iwi Maori from The land of the long white cloud Ao-tea-roa N.Z

  20. Donna Roach says:

    This article, makes me so proud to be a women.I love the fact that it is open to all women. Keep up the great work!

  21. Anonymous says:

    why do we have to always be survivors?? I hope my daughters don't enter the military. There is too much for them to deal with in this society as is. I'm glad you are still alive. seems we gotta be fighting for something huh?

  22. Terry (TWO HAWKS) Wells says:

    Iam Terry (TWO HAWKS) Wells and i have much respect and honor and dignity for all my uwoduhi crenepo warroir Sisters Mitakuye oyasin Uwoduhi Yoways Namaste Aho blessings Two Hawks ...

  23. Anonymous says:

    Being a Marine as a Native American myself in the 70's, I saw some things with Woman, that needed to be changed, although it wasn't that bad. We didn't hear much of men raping Woman back then. The Military has changed alot towards Woman, for all the right reason's and they are dealing with men in the military who think they can run wild. But, your story is one of many that put some light on change. And, they do tease Natives beause they don't understand them because there is very little talk of indigenous people. But, you over came the obstacles and thats cool. Stand Strong, and keep doing it.
    Stephen Fortune (Apache)

  24. Thank you for your service, you all are awesome individuals.

  25. Anonymous says:

    this story has made me even more proud to be native american(oglala sioux). thank you to these proud and brave women..........................

  26. Unknown says:

    A very heart warming story of the bravery and strength of our Native Women, of our Native people. Thank you Mitchelene Bigman, Julia Kelly, Sarah Baker and all the other Native American Women Warriors for all your hard work and honor.

  27. Anonymous says:

    As a woman of African acestry whose ancestors where broght to this country in chains, I am overjoyed whenever my Sisters anywhere stand in their power.
    Many blessings! Aho!

  28. Anonymous says:

    As a woman I am humbled and proud of your accomplishment representing the Native American Women. I am the President of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, Manhattan-NYC Chapter. Even though I am not in your sense a Native American, my roots are Taino Indian. Applauso!!! for your Pride and True Grit. I, too hope to get to see the Native American Women Warriors Color Guard. If you are ever in NYC, would be great. I am going to google your group to see if you have a website. Si Se Puede! Parlante! Michelle Centeno

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