Steven Clevenger on Photographing Native American Veterans

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In many Native American cultures, says photojournalist Steven Clevenger, the warrior is held in the highest esteem by his or her community. Children are taught to look up to the warriors who defend their families, their people and their way of life.

For three years, Clevenger has documented Native American war veterans primarily among the Navajo, Osage, Pueblo and Apache tribes. His new book, America's First Warriors: Native Americans and Iraq, explores the shared experiences of today's Native American troops through the lens of the warrior tradition. He is presenting today at 2 PM at the American Indian museum, in honor of Veterans' Day. I spoke with him about his work.

What first drew you to photograph in war zones and conflict areas?

I’ll be honest. It’s something I think all males wonder about, how they would react in that kind of situation, whether they’re going to admit it or not. Also, I was raised in Texas, where there’s a lot of respect for soldiers and marines. Actually, I was against the war in Vietnam very much, and I was eligible for the first draft lottery, and came up with a very high number, and I was told there was no way I would ever be drafted. So I finished off a semester I was involved in in school and traveled to Southeast Asia with the hopes of getting into Vietnam. Ironically enough, I couldn’t get a visa to go there, so I ended up in Cambodia instead.

How did this particular project evolve?

I was in Santa Fe and I read in the Albuquerque paper about a yellow ribbon ceremony being held in a few days for a New Mexico national guard unit. That’s a welcoming home ceremony, and generally they’re held in an armory that is where the particular unit is from. And I’d been thinking about doing this on the warriors, but I didn’t know really how to begin, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Tell me a bit about what you found in the course of your work.

My thesis in the book was that I would find that the ceremonies that the traditionalists go through before they leave for war and after they return, and the prayers that would make when they were overseas, would prevent them from suffering from the amount of PTSD that non-Natives do. But I found that not to be true. The ceremonies help, but they don’t cure the depression and everything. The Vietnam vets that I interviewed, they came home and things were completely different for them. One of them said, “I came home to a nation that didn’t want me and to a people who welcomed me.” The Iraq war veterans also suffer from PTSD. They come home and receive the same ceremonies that the ancients did, but they’ve been streamlined somewhat.

Your work, at least in this book does not contain violence or destruction. What does this book say about war?

It doesn’t necessarily condemn it. This is an examination of the warrior culture. And not that are pro-war by any means, they’re more involved with protecting their families, their people, and their countries now. One of the questions people ask is, why should these Native Americans fight for the United States? Look at all the oppression they’ve suffered, the genocide. And I got several answers from people. One veteran of active army as well as national guard told me that was so far in the past that it didn’t matter, he was a professional. Then another man told me he didn’t feel like the native had been defeated because the culture survives today. Others would give me answers such as, “I don’t feel like I’m fighting for the government. I’m fighting for my country and my people, my way of life.” Seems like everybody had their own answer.

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