My mother was born in 1914 and was raised in between the wars to love the American flag. She remembered fondly parades on the Fourth of July and other occasions where the flag was carried with loving pride. She was an activist in the 60s, and critical as she was of our government for the Vietnam War and for civil rights abuses, she hated to see the flag defiled. She always saw it as a beautiful symbol of our best intentions and held that affection for it through protests, marches and demonstrations.
From a generation younger, I missed out on that innocence. Burning the flag, your draft card, your bra – it all seemed fair game to me. For me the flag came to represent a blind and heartless nationalism. In fact, like many of my kind, I chose not to display a flag on the Fourth of July, or any other time. It seemed to have been high jacked by “the other side,” or more accurately, I abandoned it and let them have it.
My husband, a Vietnam veteran, has hung onto the flag, refusing to let it become a pawn in the “us versus them” battle. He realized after a few months of combat, that he and the others were not there to defend democracy but to support an unpopular government. Like so many in every war, he fought for his fellow Marines and to survive until his tour was up. Angry as he was at the US government for the lies it perpetrated to justify that war, he never gave up on the flag and wears a flag decal on the back window of his truck.
I was on the Navajo Reservation this week where I was reminded of our complex history. I lived in Chinle, Arizona, heart of Navajo country in the 60s and 70s and needed to get a good dose of old friends, mutton stew and fry bread, and Canyon de Chelly, one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, in my opinion. On my way I stopped off in Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capital, to see an exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian: The Treaty of 1868 with the US government. Navajo leaders signed the treaty as a condition of their release from four years of captivity at Fort Sumner, 400 miles from their homeland. Many died in captivity, and many more on the long walk back. It is an incredibly painful moment in history for Navajos, and a moment that our country should be deeply ashamed of – particularly given the treaty’s many broken promises.
Deeply moved by the painful past, and at the same time marveling at the vitality and strength of Navajo culture today, I drove toward Chinle.
I made an unplanned stop at the Fort Defiance Veterans’ Cemetery. Dozens and dozens of American flags dotting the dusty landscape caught my eye. They were all sizes, snapping sharply in the wind, each marking the grave of a soldier, from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Native Americans have served in disproportionate numbers in all wars. Their patriotism and loyalty to this country runs deep, and the price they pay is steep – physical, emotional and spiritual suffering, or the ultimate loss of life.
I spent time at the cemetery, reading the names of those who died for this country in spite of broken promises. As I looked at all those flags that meant so much to them and their families, I thought about my mother. I wish she had been with me. She would have appreciated that moment.