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Veterans Day On The Navajo Nation: Healing Through Ceremony

Photo of women and men in military uniform holding open a large american flag, with a tipi in the background.
Russel Daniels
Members of the Oljato Veterans Association fold an American flag. The group is known for their ceremonial flag folding skills, according to Gulf War veteran Benny Fatt.

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah — Sitting in a white tipi below red sandstone buttes and spires, Navy veteran Misty Cly received a hero’s welcome in the form of a traditional healing ceremony.

It has been a year since her retirement from the Navy, in which she served for 20 years, and Cly says she is still getting used to being home. The local branch of the Azeé Bee Nahghá of Diné Nation, formerly known as the Native American Church, decided to hold a peyote ceremony to help her adjust.

“We all fall, you know, that’s part of life,” she said. “But the peyote, for me, it really connects me back to my roots, and makes you think everything is going to be OK.”

Photo of a woman in a baseball hat stands in front of two flags in Monument valley, with a sandstone formation in the background.
Credit Russel Daniels / For KUER
Misty Cly, 39, is one of the most recent veterans to return to Monument Valley after serving in the armed forces. She joined the military at the age of 18 and said she is glad to be home.

What started as a ceremony for Cly, grew into a two-day Veterans Day event that drew around 100 people from Utah and Northern Arizona. It was co-hosted by the Oljato Veterans Association, and included a trail ride, singing, speeches and lots of eating. Oljato is the name of the area surrounding Monument Valley.

Event organizers set up six tall tipis for the event, which they say was the first of its kind. It took place on Saturday and Sunday against a dramatic backdrop of sandstone formations on the Utah-Arizona state line. Inside the tipis, church leaders, veterans and their families and friends performed peyote ceremonies all night.

“We talk to them, we pray for them, we sing for them, throughout the night,” said Jonah Yellowman, leader of the Azeé Bee Nahghá of Diné Nation District Two branch. 

Yellowman says the ceremonies help veterans undo the oaths they took in the military and return to normal life. 

“As far back as when they were drafted, their minds changed,” he said. “So this is part of the healing process that we do for them.” 

The event kicked off at sunrise on Saturday morning with a flag ceremony conducted by members of the Oljato Veterans Association. The group was dormant until 2004, when Vietnam veteran Wesley Simpson took over as commander. 

“People kind of slowly, slowly came in,” he said. “We told them we have funding, and we need to use it.”

Now, the Oljato Veterans Association has around 40 members, and they are highly regarded for their flag work, according to vice-commander Benny Fatt, who served in the Gulf War. The group travels around the reservation to perform ceremonies, known as color guard and honor guard, at high school graduations and military funerals. 

Photo of a group of men at the ceremony.
Credit Russel Daniels / For KUER
Navajo Veterans were honored by trail riders, who rode across Monument Valley to meet them and plant the American and Arizona flag in the ground. A Navajo man sung a traditional horse song as part of the ceremony.

He says the group also provides housing assistance to its members, but the greatest benefit is the sense of belonging it gives veterans who have returned to the reservation. 

“When you’re trying to talk about PTSD, our tribe thinks about it as a taboo. Because it messes up your mind,” he said. “That’s what’s so cool about [being in the group]. You get to talk to someone who understands you.” 

Cly, Fatt, and Simpson stood in line beside other veterans on Saturday afternoon, as a group of around 30 people holding flags rode in on horses to honor them. Navajo communities often celebrate holidays and events with trail rides, which can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. 

Cly says she’s been treated like a hero since returning to the reservation. 

“They really look up to women who are in the military here on the Navajo reservation,” she said. “It’s like you’re a queen.” 

But Simpson says veterans have not always been treated with respect and appreciation by members of the Navajo Nation. He recounts being shunned when he came home from Vietnam, and says that’s why events like this are important. 

“When we came back, nobody welcomed us. All they would say is, ‘You guys are baby-killers,’” he said. “But nowadays it’s very different… We wish we had been welcomed like this.”

Fatt said the Oljato Veterans Association hopes to host a similar event in Shonto, Arizona next year.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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