Life of a Diné in the military

  • Published
  • By Chustine Minoda
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

As the sun rose to the east, a Native American couple faced the sunrise and took a pinch of corn pollen from a small leather pouch. They rubbed the pollen on their foreheads, sprinkled it on their tongues, and then scattered some on the ground as part of their daily morning prayer.


The daily morning prayer is just one of the many traditions that U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Arsonio Arthur, 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Mobility Air Forces integrated electronic systems specialist and an additional duty first sergeant, and his spouse, Vanessa Arthur, 60th Inpatient Squadron psychiatric technician and early intervention substance abuse counselor, practice as a Diné while they are hundreds of miles away from their tribe.

“Dinè stands for ‘The People;’ that’s how we identify ourselves as a Navajo,” Vanessa Arthur said.


Since the American Revolution, Native Americans have served in the armed forces of the United States. Arsonio and Vanessa Arthur are both from the Navajo Nation and came from families with a long history of serving in the military. Despite being stationed away from the Navajo Nation, they still apply their traditions to their daily lives with their two children.


When they meet other Native Americans, they introduce themselves by saying their names and from which clan they belong.


“It is how we identify as a Diné. It’s a reflection of our ancestors and our homesteads,” Vanessa Arthur said.


For Arsonio Arthur, his clans are Coyote Pass-Jemez Zuni, Towering House and Big Water people. His wife is from the Water Edge, Bitter Water, Many Goats and Salt people.

There are some challenges a Native American can face while serving in the military. According to Arsonio Arthur, one challenging aspect is continuing to practice their culture and traditions and sharing stories, as these usually occur during ceremonial practices back in Navajo Nation.


“We have ceremonies that we do when kids reach puberty age. For girls, it’s called Kinaaldá,” Vanessa Arthur said. “When we did this for our daughter, we had to fly back home from Okinawa, Japan. We had to go home for the ceremony within the first two weeks she got her first period.”


The Arthurs explained that the Kinaaldá is a four-day-long ceremony. Therefore, it takes a week to prepare for it. First, they have to build a hogan (a traditional dwelling and a ceremonial structure), prepare her attire for the ceremony and then prepare the food.


As for their son, they held a “becoming a warrior” ceremony. It is when he received his warrior name. Their warrior names are not shared with others; they only know and the holy people from their tribe.


Vanessa Arthur shared that the military community has taught her to be resilient. The challenge she endures as a spouse is that she does not always have the tools in her home to practice her spiritual healing and nourish her family with the food she grew up with. But she always finds an alternative way to practice spiritual healing and prepare food.


The Arthurs’ experiences growing up as Native Americans helped them immensely in transitioning to military life.


“Having a structure growing up helped a lot,” Arsonio Arthur said. “Every day, we get up early in the morning and do our chores. We’ve been doing this since we were little.”


The way they grew up shaped both of them into the people they are today.


“My brother and I will walk one to two miles down the windmills to get water for our family. We started doing this since we were five or six years old,” Vanessa Arthur said. “Our grandparents taught us how to get there and how to do it and we have a designated time for it.”


As adults, they start their day by running. After their run, they come home, walk around the four corners of their house and touch it. Then they touch the top of the door and say their prayer. Traditionally, they do these things in a hogan, but since they are not in one, they replicate what a hogan looks like when they do their morning routines.


“We learned this from our grandparents. Before we start our day, we will give our thanks and what we are grateful for in the morning,” Vanessa Arthur said.


As a Native American family in a military environment, they continue to practice and pass on their tradition to their kids. One of the many is greeting one another in the morning and saying “I love you” to each other. Vanessa shared this is their morning routine with their children and that they do not say goodbye to each other.


Arsonio Arthur explained that there is no word in the Navajo language for goodbye.


“We don’t ever say goodbye to one another,” Vanessa Arthur said. “As part of our culture, we say, ‘See you later.’”