“Call him drunken Ira Hayes,
He won't answer anymore;
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war.”
The late Johnny Cash often found himself in hot water because of the words that he sang.
Still early in his legendary country music career, Cash – who claimed Cherokee descent – fought with his record company about his desire to produce Bitter Tears, a concept album consisting of eight songs written from the point of view of Native Americans. The music industry wanted its singers to entertain, not educate, and raw slices of real Indian life like The Ballad of Ira Hayes were not seen as the most saleable products.
Ira Hayes told the true story of a young Pima Indian who left his Arizona reservation to join the U.S. Marines in World War II and who became a celebrity by being one of six soldiers immortalized in a photo of them raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, Japan in the last days of the war. “You are an American hero,” President Harry Truman told Hayes when he shook his hand at the White House.
But Hayes did not feel like a hero – he was one of only five members of a platoon of 45 Marines who survived the assault at Iwo Jima, and that left him deeply conflicted. He also had to live with knowing that his fame was of no help to his people, whose water rights had been stolen and farming livelihood threatened by what The Ballad of Ira Hayes would call “white man’s greed”. After a night of drinking, he died Jan. 24, 1955 in an irrigation ditch, the single source of water provided for his people by the government he had so proudly served. He was 32.
When The Ballad was released as a single in 1964, many radio stations refused to play it, as Cash’s record company had feared. He responded by buying a full-page ad in Billboard magazine, accusing disc jockeys of “wallowing in meaninglessness.” The resulting controversy drew attention to the song – which rose to number three on the country music charts – helped give momentum to Cash’s career, and lent credibility to “protest songs” by up-and-coming activists like Buffy Ste. Marie.
The story of Ira Hayes is not a pleasant one. But it is a familiar one. Hayes’ fate was eerily similar to that of Tommy Prince, the Manitoba Ojibway who became Canada’s most decorated war veteran, and who died in obscurity.
Each was a hero on foreign battlefields, but “just another Indian” when they came home after war, subject to the same indignities and prejudice as if they had never been away.
They are two of the most well-known Natives who have fought under the flags of Canada and the United States, from World War I to more current campaigns in the Gulf War and Afghanistan. But the Native American military tradition goes a long way back in history, and includes the names of great Chiefs like Tecumseh, without whose allegiance in the War of 1812 the British would not have retained control of Canada, their last foothold on the continent.
In the two World Wars of the 20th Century, Natives enlisted in higher per capita numbers than any other identifiable group, an estimated 7,000 enlisting even though they had a treaty right not to. During World War I, the entire adult male populations of a number of First Nation communities volunteered for service.
This past year, the Canadian Armed Forces recognized the contributions of Cpl. Frances Pegahmagabow, a Wasauksing First Nation sniper who recorded 378 “kills” in World War I, by naming the headquarters of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group in Camp Borden after him. He was one of only 39 men in the entire Canadian Expeditionary Force to be awarded the Military Medal for gallantry three times.
Another Anishinabek Nation veteran, Ray Rogers of Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, has served as Chairman of the First Nations Veterans of Canada, and joined surviving World War II comrades on pilgrimages to places like Vimy Ridge, where the towering memorial bears the names of 35 Native soldiers.
“It gives me great pride that First Nations people participated so that we may live in peace and freedom,” says Rogers, who serves as an Elder on the executive of the Union of Ontario Indians. Rogers was part of a contingent of Native veterans who in 2005 toured European battle sites and participated in Calling Home ceremonies – to return the spirits of fallen warriors to their homelands and put them to rest with their ancestors in Canada.
Canada’s long overdue recognition of the contributions of Native warriors included distribution of specially-struck medals to surviving veterans and their families, and a place of honour during national Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa.
Even Hollywood has joined the act. The Clint Eastwood-directed Flags of Our Fathers, the story behind the iconic photo of six U.S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima in 1945, is generating a great deal of Oscar buzz. Adam Beach, a Saulteaux from Manitoba, is cast in the role of Ira Hayes, the reluctant Indian hero who turns to alcohol to ease the pain of war experience.
When the film opened in North Bay a few weeks ago, an Elder from the area was eager to see Beach’s portrayal of the tortured Hayes. The movie was great, he reported to a friend, but he was taken aback by loud comments from a couple of local louts about Ira Hayes being just another drunken Indian.
Native warriors may have helped win many battles – but they still haven’t won the war.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of Alderville First Nation, where a cenotaph bears the names of three of his uncles and his grandfather, who wore military uniforms for Canada.