National Museum of the American Indian

“We took our way of life with us to keep us strong. We represented our tribes in keeping with these values.” —Captain Cody Ayon

Cody Ayon (Tsistsistas [Southern Cheyenne]) enlisted in both the U.S. Navy and the New Mexico Army National Guard. The Native community of Albuquerque welcomed then-Lieutenant Ayon home with a Soldier Dance after his service during the Iraq War. (Steven Clevenger [Osage], courtesy of Cody Ayon)
Cody Ayon (Tsistsistas [Southern Cheyenne]) enlisted in both the U.S. Navy and the New Mexico Army National Guard. The Native community of Albuquerque welcomed then-Lieutenant Ayon home with a Soldier Dance after his service during the Iraq War. (Steven Clevenger [Osage], courtesy of Cody Ayon)

Thank you for giving the museum this opportunity to highlight the National Native American Veterans Memorial being built on the grounds of the museum in Washington, and Native American’s extraordinary record of service in the U.S. Armed Forces. But first, please introduce yourself and share a little about your background.

My full name is Bill Cody Ayon, but I go by Cody. My Native Name is Mo’ohtavo’nehe, translated into English, it’s Blackwolf. My tribe is Tsistsistas (Southern Cheyenne) from Oklahoma. I was born in Deming, New Mexico, and raised in both Southern and Northern New Mexico, living with my parents, who were separated when I was a young boy.

Is the warrior culture strong in your family or tribe?

The warrior culture is very strong in my family and my tribe. It has always been our way and an honorable path for a man to serve our tribe. Warriors are the individuals who later in life were bound to serve as leaders of the Cheyenne people, not through warfare or individual exploits of courage, but as Peace Chiefs to guide and lead with compassion and foresight for all in the tribe.

The young sons and grandsons of those who fought against subjugation by the United States government found themselves looking for a way to serve their people and continue the warrior traditions, and they found this path to be by serving in the United States military. My family has stepped forward in this capacity ever since. Service to the United States military is an honorable and cherished value in my family, not for just the warrior aspect, but for the continued defense of the land that we as Cheyenne people still live upon.

Every generation of my family—my grandfathers, uncles, father, nephews, and siblings—has served in the U.S. Armed Forces, beginning in World War I when my great-grandfather William Jarvis Sr. joined the U.S. Army.

During World War II, my grandfather Simon Chavez and uncle Lawrence Shortman served in the U.S. Navy. My uncles William Jarvis Jr. and Moses Starr served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. During the Vietnam War era, my father, Pete Ayon (U.S. Navy), and uncles Jerry “Hank” Harjo (U.S. Navy), Gerald Chavez (U.S. Navy), Jerry Jarvis (U.S. Army), and Charlie Harjo (U.S. Army) served. My brother Cory Ayon (U.S. Navy) and cousin Mike Jarvis (U.S. Army) served during the Cold War. My brother Davis Jarvis (U.S. Navy) served in Iraq, and my nephew Mark Ayon (U.S. Air Force) and cousin Tyrell Wheeler (U.S. Marine Corps) served in Afghanistan. My nephew Nick Wheeler is serving in the Marine Corps now.

Why did you choose to serve? Did your Native background play a part in your decision?

It is part of my family lineage. To serve in this role was and is, in my eyes, the noblest of callings. To put yourself in harm’s way in any capacity for the service and protection of our country and way of life is a value that must be cherished. I knew with every ounce of my being that I would step up and follow in the footsteps of so many in my family and be a part of something bigger than myself. The ideal and principle to serve was never second nature to me. I had to do it, and my imagination yearned for the adventure that a life in the military could offer.

It’s impossible to separate my Native background from my family, but yes, being Native American played an instrumental part in my decision to join the military. I was surrounded by relatives, their history, and their paths in the Armed Forces. As a child I would listen to the stories they told. The adventures they were a part of shaped the world. That inspired me, and I desired deeply to be a part of that world. I was in awe of veterans I saw as young man at Gourd Dances and social gatherings. Just knowing so many people who had the courage and determination to step up and serve in Vietnam, Korea, and so many other parts of the world pushed me to join the Armed Forces.

Why did you enter the military?

I first enlisted in the U.S. Navy in June of 1992. I chose the Navy for a few key reasons, but the one that sticks out in my mind is that I could travel. I loved that aspect. That adventure was in my blood, and the opportunity to see so many different places absolutely ran through my thought process. I wanted to breathe the air on the other side of the world, see the people, hear their languages, eat their food and drink their beer, and see landscapes that I’d only seen in books or magazines.

After serving six years in the Navy, I found myself still wanting to serve, and I made the career decision to re-enlist as a member of the New Mexico Army National Guard. There I made it my life’s passion to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. I wanted to become the best leader I could possibly be.

What years did you serve and where?

I served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army in both and active and reserve roles from 1992 to 2016—a total of 24 years. The easiest thing might be to list the places I served:

Boot Camp Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois

USS Parche SSN-683 (fast attack submarine), Mare Island, California

USS Dixon AS-37 (submarine tender) Naval Base, Point Loma, California

USS Nimitz CVN-68 (nuclear aircraft carrier), Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington

OCS (Officer Candidate School), New Mexico Army National Guard

IBOLC (Infantry Officer Basic Leader Course) and MCCC (Maneuver Captain’s Career Course), Fort Benning, Georgia

Unit 2-200th Infantry Battalion, C Company (platoon leader), Las Cruces, New Mexico

Unit 2-200th Infantry Battalion, C Company (platoon leader), Baghdad 2007–2008 (Iraq War)

Unit 2-200th Infantry Battalion, C Company (executive officer), Las Cruces, New Mexico

Unit Headquarters, 515th RTI OCS (Regional Training Institute Officer Candidate School cadre), Santa Fe

Unit 1-200th Infantry Battalion, B Company (commander), Rio Rancho, New Mexico

What was the highest rank you received?

Captain.

Were there other Native sailors and soldiers who served with you?

I served with hundreds of Native American service members throughout my time in the Navy and the Army. I consider all of them my friends, brothers, and sisters. They are some of the most competent, professional, loyal, and dependable service members I have ever known. To serve your country as a Native—to come from a background of knowing that the government you serve is the same one that tried to decimate your ancestors—shows heart, resilience, courage, strength, and fortitude.

Native Americans and others have made it clear that any person from any race can step up from and commit to changing this world for the better through military service.

Were you treated differently in the service because you are Native?

I don’t believe I was treated differently at all. When my peers learned that I was Native, they always seemed to be interested in who I was, where I was from, and my views on the world. I had the sense that for people from around the world, in so many cultures, Native Americans only live in history books. Their idea is that we are a vanished people. When they see that you are very real, they’re interested in who you are. That’s the only difference I saw and felt as a Native in the service. Even within our own country, many other people have no contact with Native Americans and believe we are no longer part of the population of the United States.

Can you please share a story or incident that sticks out most in your mind about your service?

The story I would most like to share is when I was in the Iraq War and I asked my wife to ship my powwow drum to Camp Cropper, where I was living. There was a large presence of Native Americans from New Mexico in that part of Iraq, and I thought it would be a great idea to have a drum with us so that we could share songs and tell stories to keep us occupied during our deployment. Each night we sang songs and, in such a different part of the world, kept alive a piece of us that we had left back home. We sang with that drum in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

It made me realize that we share so much with others from around the world. One night we were singing, and a group of Ugandan soldiers were standing off in the distance, talking and looking at us in a curious manner. I approached them and asked them to sit with us and talk. They came from a drum culture in their country in Africa, just like Native Americans, and they were drawn to the sound of the drum. The heartbeat of the drum, which we believe is the same as the sound of our mother’s heart beating in the womb, called to them. The Ugandan soldiers were thrilled to sit with us and have a common thread of life from two very different parts of our huge world. It was a shared moment I will never forget.

The drum has a life of its own, and in that war, it called to us and to those African soldiers and made us all feel a little bit closer as fellow human beings. It made us not feel such a wide difference between who we are.

After Lt. Ayon’s wife shipped his powwow drum to his base in Iraq, Native American soldiers gathered around its heartbeat to share songs and stories. Native American Heritage Month program. Al-Faw Palace, Baghdad. November 2007. (Courtesy of Cody Ayon)

Where were you when your service ended?

When I ended my service career, I was a captain in the New Mexico Army National Guard. I had just completed my time as a Company Commander for Bravo Company with the 1-200th Infantry Battalion in Rio Rancho. That was my goal: to lead soldiers successfully at a prestigious level. After reaching this milestone I set out to reach, I felt it was time to retire.

Did your community do anything special for you when returned home?

After serving in the Iraq War and returning from that combat deployment, I was given a Soldier Dance, as is customary within my tribe. Family, friends, and supporters from various Gourd Societies in the Albuquerque area came out to show their support and welcome me back into the Native community I grew up in.

Are you a member of a veterans’ group?

I am the Head Man and Leader of the War Shield Gourd Society, a group that specifically participates in Gourd Dancing. The society isn’t designated as a veterans’ group, although the majority of dancers and other participants have served in the Armed Forces. The group historically comes from the Kiowa Tribe and is described as a Man’s Dance in origin. These two groups—veterans and the Man’s Dance—go hand-in-hand because the warrior mentality of leadership and service has allowed so many tribes to endure and thrive into the present despite great adversity.

Among societies like mine, you will see predominantly individuals, both women and men, who have served in the Armed Forces, who have served our country with honor. They support the history and continued cultural aspect of Gourd Dancing.

Would you recommend joining the service to members of your family or your tribe?

I always encourage both family and friends, whether they have a tribal affiliation or not, to serve in our Armed Forces. I believe as an American citizen and specifically as a Native American that service to our country and defending our homeland is still the greatest endeavor a person can undertake for their people and family.

Capt. Ayon donated his drum to the museum as a symbol of the values Native American men and women bring to their service to the country. Tsistsistas (Southern Cheyenne) powwow drum, 2007. Oklahoma. 27/167 (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian)

What do you think of the Native American Veterans Memorial, which will be completed this fall?

I believe that building the Native American Veterans Memorial is a pivotal step that has been needed to recognize the Native Americans who have devoted their hearts, minds, and sometimes their lives to the service of our country and their tribes. Their lives and sacrifice should be honored and remembered, for what they’ve given to Native communities and to all citizens of the United States in keeping our country great and strong.

The memorial will serve as reminder and a beacon, not only to Natives but to all who see it, that we are still here, we are still keeping our way of life alive, and our warrior traditions are not forgotten. Even after facing atrocities at the hands of our government earlier in the country’s history, we still stand as the keepers of our homeland.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’d like to say thank you. I am truly grateful and honored to be given this opportunity to answer these questions about my service to our country as a Native American. I hope that through the Native American Veterans Memorial, the legacy of all our warrior forefathers lives on—their service to our country, our people, and to keeping our ways of life vibrant.

I’ve given the museum the drum my wife sent me during Iraq War, and my hope is that it will be displayed when we’re able to gather to dedicate the memorial. I’d like all the other Native veterans to see that, as we faced adversity, we took our way of life with us to keep us strong. We represented our tribes and other Native members of the Armed Forces in keeping with these values.

Thank you.

On November 11, 2020, the National Museum of the American Indian will host a virtual event to mark the completion of the National Native American Veterans Memorial and acknowledge the service and sacrifice of Native veterans and their families. We hope you will join us online for the occasion. When it is safe to do so, the museum will reschedule both the formal dedication ceremony and the Native American Vetereans Procession.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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