In a grassy clearing amid the dusty hills here, Donovan Nez bends over a bubbling spring. Mr. Nez, 26, is a Navajo Indian and a former marine. Though he wears his dark hair cropped in a military cut, he looks very much the civilian on this Sunday afternoon. He balances on a fallen log, turning every so often to flash a boyish smile at his younger cousins who cluster behind him on the bank.
"When you drink this water," says Nez, "it seeps into every crevice of your body. It rejuvenates you."
Nez turns back to the water at the site known as Swiffle Spring, located on the Navajo Indian reservation just below the Chuksa mountains here, and bows his head. He whispers a prayer in Navajo, then English.
"Mother Earth, ease our physical and mental burdens. Thank you for all you have given us. For safety and strength. For this sacred water." He places his hands in the spring.
When Nez thanks Mother Earth for protection, he often has something specific in mind – namely Iraq, where he served two tours with the US Marines.
Nez believes his faith and traditions helped bring him back safely from the war. More than that, they help explain why he and other native Americans enlist in the military in such large numbers – even though many resent the way the US government has treated their people over the centuries.
They feel an unusual obligation to protect the tribal communities they belong to and, more specifically, the land they've inhabited for generations. The result is that native Americans tend to join the service at higher per capita rates than almost any other minority group.
According to the Pentagon, they represent less than 1 percent of the population, but makeup about 1.6 percent of the armed forces. In some tribal communities, 1 out of every 200 adults have served in the military. Currently, nearly 20,000 native American and Alaskan native people are in uniform.
• • •
One reason for the high participation rates, to be sure, are the career and economic benefits. "The military is seen as an opportunity," says Mark St. Pierre, an historian who has lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for 35 years. His book, "Of Uncommon Birth: Dakota sons in Vietnam," follows native Americans who fought in Southeast Asia. He estimates that nearly 50 percent of males on the reservation have served in the military. "People on this reservation realize they will get VA benefits," he says, "that they might go to college."
The same is true of the Navajo reservation, which sprawls across 27,000 square miles of northern Arizona and extends into Utah and New Mexico. Some 43 percent of the reservation's 180,000 residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment stands at 42 percent. Nearly 32 percent of homes lack full plumbing. Nez grew up in a cramped trailer. As the oldest of four children, he never had a bed, but slept on the floor or couch.
Yet the cultural motivations for military service run deep among native Americans, too – and set them apart from many other minority groups. A sense of tribal duty is often a primary motivator.
"In a tribal society, social status and approval are important," says Mr. St. Pierre. "If a man's not a veteran, he's going to be less. It's ingrained in the culture."
He and others talk about the "warrior culture" that is so pervasive among native Americans. But this ethos isn't about blind violence. St. Pierre notes that native American tribes have a history of "turf wars" – those fought over land, hunting rights, trade routes, and water access. "For the most part," he says, "American Indians did not fight wars of annihilation."
Nez says the mentality of fighting is "in our blood. It's natural to fight for the cause you believe in." But when he speaks about manliness and strength, he also lists sacrifice and unselfishness as fundamental warrior traits.
Many native Americans find reservation life helps them adjust to the rigors of the military. David Nez, Donovan's uncle, enlisted in the Army in 1974 at the age of 19. He served six years of active duty, and later fought in the Gulf War with the Army Reserve. David Nez says he enlisted for the economic benefits but that his upbringing made military service a "natural choice."
"Growing up, we'd ride horses bareback – just like that." Nez is standing outside a cluster of trailer homes and points to a group of young men riding our direction. The yard is dusty and stretches into a vast landscape of desert brush. "I could run for a long ways," he says. "I could climb rocks and trees, jump from heights. I was already in physical shape. I already knew hunger and thirst. When I got to basic training and faced all that hardship, I was already up to it."
It's evident that patriotism runs deep here on the Navajo reservation. Many houses fly American flags, and the national anthem is sung at most community events. But native Americans often interpret these symbols differently from the rest of society.
"Our patriotism is first to the family and the clan," says Ed Piestewa, a Hopi, during a veterans-appreciation ceremony on the Navajo reservation. As we speak, a color guard marches out into the searing sun. They're wearing military attire along with feathered head dresses and traditional jewelry. Moments later, the color guard sings The Star-Spangled Banner – in Navajo.
Mr. Piestewa's niece, Lori Ann Piestewa, was the first female soldier to die fighting in Iraq. Her convoy was hit by a bomb in 2003 in Nasiriyah. (Pfc. Piestewa's best friend Jessica Lynch was injured in the same attack). She was a single mom with two small children and, according to her uncle, hoped military benefits would help support her family. Her decision to serve carried cultural significance as well.
"She was fulfilling a traditional right of passage," says Piestewa. Then he adds, "Natives were enlisting before we were recognized as US citizens. They enlist to protect the family."
Similarly, when Mary Cohoe looks at the flag, she doesn't think about Congress, the president, or democratic ideals. To her, Old Glory is a symbol of the US military and the physical sacrifices she and her people have made for their land. Ms. Cohoe served in Vietnam with the Red Cross. The US Army issued her a military ID while she was in the country, and she still considers herself a Vietnam veteran. "It's our dirt," she says. "That's where we came from. The flag is the loyalty that we have, as Navajo, to Mother Earth."
• • •
As Ms. Cohoe and other veterans explain, the military is one way for native Americans to gain power in a country that they believe continues to ignore and mistreat them. "We are using the system to protect our culture – to survive," she says.
Donovan Nez feels he has achieved a balance between his two identities: Indian and American. Though he lives off the reservation in Phoenix, he edits independent films about young Navajo adults reconnecting with their native roots. He feels integrated into American culture but not assimilated. Still, he grapples with his military service. "That's an ongoing question for me," he says. "How can you be a vet after the US treated your people so bad?"
At Swiffle Spring, Nez finishes his prayer to Mother Earth. He fills empty milk cartons and soda bottles with water to bring to his parents. Then he hands a brimming pitcher to his sister, who pours the cold water over his cupped hands, head, and neck – an impromptu baptism.
"The reason I'm OK with being a US citizen is that Mother Earth is the same wherever you are," he says. "For me to have the whole US as my home" – Nez pauses mid sentence, as though in awe – "I'm so lucky to be living on my land."