Documentaries tell indigenous military veterans’ ‘largely untold story’ during Native American Heritage Month

PBS documentaries ‘The Warrior Tradition’ and ‘Art, Honor & Service’ premiere in Buffalo

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Native Americans have the highest per-capita U.S. military service rate out of any group in America. 

This fact is widely unknown to the public, but WNED documentaries are highlighting the stories of indigenous people across native tribes who enlist in large numbers to fight for the government that sought to eradicate their cultures centuries ago. 

On Thursday, PBS affiliate WNED hosted the first screenings of its new documentary “The Warrior Tradition,” and short film “Art, Honor & Service.” Both films document the history of indigenous people who served in the U.S. military through interviews and personal accounts. Roughly 200 viewers attended the screenings in WNED’s banquet center.

The stories in the feature-length film “The Warrior Tradition” span World War I to modern-day military conflicts.

In addition to depicting the strength of native veterans and indigenous people as a whole, “The Warrior Tradition,” created by Lawrence Hott, illustrates the hardships indigenous cultures face. The native veterans in the film share inspiring and heartbreaking tales from what they say is the “largely-untold story of Native Americans in the United States military.”

“The first thing we thought of was that this was not going to be a film about heroism. We were not going to talk about exploits,” Hott said. “It was going to be more about culture.”

After the hour-long screening of “The Warrior Tradition,” WNED screened local Onöndowa’ga:’ (Seneca)filmmaker Caleb Abrams’ short film “Art, Honor & Service.”

The film highlights Carson Waterman, an Onöndowa’ga:’ artist from the Seneca Allegany Territory who was drafted into the Vietnam War. Waterman shares his feelings on fighting for the U.S. government, despite the “forced relocation of the Allegany Senecas” in 1964 in the wake of the construction of the Kinzua Dam. Waterman says his artwork saved his life both during combat and after returning home, where it helped him manage his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Waterman’s original artwork was on display and for sale during the screenings.

Both films aim to provide visibility and validity for the hundreds of unique indigenous tribes across the country, featuring unique indigenous characters who shared their feelings about their time in the service.

“What sets [Native Americans] apart and why our service rates are so high in our native communities is because of the warrior tradition,” said D.J. Vanas, military veteran and member of the Odowa Tribe who was featured in “The Warrior Tradition.” “To us, [serving in the military] is not just a cultural perspective, but it’s also an obligation, it’s a commitment. And it also connects to our spirituality as well.”

The two films gave the veterans a medium to share their stories in a transparent way. 

“My primary focus through this whole project was making sure that I was communicating Carson’s truth,” said Abrams. “I really wanted to make sure that the final product was something that reflected Carson’s experiences.”

Indigenous audience members viewed the films as informative tools for non-natives.

 “I want [non-natives] to know how many veterans the Seneca Nation has throughout its history,” said Angela Kennedy, Seneca Nation member and Salamanca, New York resident. “What I really want people to get out of these films is that we’re still alive and our culture is thriving.” 

 “The Warrior Tradition’s” broadcast premiere is Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Viewers can watch “Art, Honor & Service,” along with three other short films about indigenous veterans, on PBS’ website. 

The arts desk can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com.