BISMARCK – Akíčhita.
The Lakota word means “warrior,” and President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will discover just how much that means to North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on Friday.
Their presidential visit to the community of Cannon Ball coincides with the start of the tribe’s annual Flag Day Celebration Wacipi.
Now in its 41st year, the powwow held during the week of Flag Day reaches its pinnacle with a flag-raising ceremony honoring tribal members who have served in the military.
Names of fallen soldiers are read aloud as American flags that once were draped over their caskets are raised and flown on the powwow grounds – nearly 80 flags in all, limited only by the number of flagpoles.
Family members also hang flags in their windows and at their loved ones’ graves, said LaDonna Allard, the tribe’s historian, genealogist and tourism director.
“Our people have always done this. We have always honored our veterans. And to us this is something very important,” Allard said. “And so I hope that (President) Obama sees how much we respect the veterans.”
The three-day Cannon Ball powwow normally draws about 500 to 600 people to the community of 800 to 900, Allard said. The 58-year-old fondly remembers it being among the region’s biggest powwows during her childhood.
“There would be tents everywhere,” she said. “They would come from all over.”
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she first attended the powwow in 1984 during her run for state auditor.
“I just will never forget it. It was one of the most moving, patriotic things I have ever attended,” she said.
Time and competition from other events have chipped away at the powwow’s size, but not its significance.
Respect for military service, rooted in the warrior tradition, runs deep on reservations, not only in North Dakota but throughout Indian Country.
Native Americans have historically had a disproportionately higher record of military service per capita compared with other races and ethnic groups. The 2010 census counted more than 150,000 military veterans who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone. As of February, there were 15,706 Native Americans serving on active duty, representing 1.2 percent of the U.S. military’s 1.36 million active duty members, according to the Department of Defense.
Heitkamp said a 4-H club that visited her Washington, D.C., office Thursday included two senior girls from the Standing Rock Reservation. One had enlisted in the Army, the other in the Marines.
“That’s not unusual when you go into Indian Country,” she said.
Allard said that even before learning last week about the president’s visit, powwow organizers were planning to honor the more than 40 Standing Rock veterans who served as code talkers during World Wars I or II. The soldiers were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony last November in Washington, D.C.
The code talkers were sworn to secrecy about their military role, and Allard said most took that oath to the grave. She said many of their descendants didn’t learn about it until years later, when the medals were announced after Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008.
“The shock of some of the people … even the men would start crying. It was a long time in coming, this honoring for them,” she said.
Allard’s own father, the late Frank Brave Bull, fought in the Korean War. Her uncle John Brave Bull Jr. was a World War II veteran, and his father fought in World War I. Such military lineage is “very common” – and very important – among the tribe’s families, she said.
“A warrior always fights for his people, and so that is the highest status you can have,” Allard said. “Our akíčhita are still known today: Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Rain in the Face. We’re all their descendants.”
It was still unclear Wednesday how much of the powwow the president and first lady will experience on Friday. Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said he hopes to give the president a flavor of the powwow.
“That’s what we’re hoping to do is to show him a little bit of our culture, as well as address some of the concerns and issues that we have and look for solutions,” he said.
The tribe released a statement Wednesday explaining that due to limited space, tickets will be required to attend the Flag Day Celebration while the president is there. An unspecified number of tickets will be available to tribal members. Additional information was available on the tribe’s website at www.standingrock.org.