Navajo serves 2 nations

by Airman 1st Class Donald Hudson
Yokota Air Base

Yokota Air Base, Japan -- Yokota Air Base, Japan-- His father was a Vietnam paratrooper, his grandfather served in the Korean War, and his uncle was one of the last Marine Navajo Code Talkers before passing away. For one service member, following in his family’s footsteps, being faithful to a proud heritage and ‘Serving Our Nations’ means more to him being that he is Native American and has a strong family heritage within America and serving in the Military.

Master Sgt. Edward M. Silversmith, 374th Maintenance Squadron flight chief, has served in the U.S. Air Force for 22 years in various locations around the world, but never forgets his roots no matter how far he travels.

 “I am 100% Navajo. In our language we call Navajo ‘Dine’, and the translation is ‘the people of the land,’” said Silversmith. “There is a real sense of community and family on the reservation, where everyone knows everyone. That kind of makes me who I am.”

Silversmith’s family lives within the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation with approximately 400,000 people. It is located in the Four Corners region in the Southwestern United States. While his grandmother lived a traditional Navajo life in a Hogan, a circular house with the main door facing east toward the rising sun, Silversmith grew up like most any other small town Americans.

Growing up on a farm his family had a lot of livestock: cows, sheep, horses, chickens, cats, dogs and a donkey. His closest neighbors were his aunt who lived three miles away and his grandparents who lived another five miles away.

His school was over 20 miles away and he had to walk two miles through the mountain forest that bordered the family farm to catch the school bus before and after school. Because his family lived so far away it was hard for him to spend time with friends outside of school, so he spent a lot of time with family.

“Some of the earliest memories on the reservation that I have is riding horses with my cousins,” Silversmith said. “We challenged each other’s skill on horses, chasing each other through the trees in the mountains. I’m surprised none of us got hurt.”

Although they were always given a task to go check on the cattle or heard the sheep here and there, they always played their riding games on the horses.

As they got older they started to play their same riding games but on motorcycles and ATVs.

Working on a farm taught Silversmith about hard work ethic. When they did have down time they would listen to the radio on the farm, which being near the top of a mountain had good reception of the radio stations around the area. They also had a television and VCR, which they could watch movies on, but didn’t have access to any channels.

According to Silversmith there are still a surprising amount of people in the Navajo Nations that still live their traditional way without running water or electricity. While his family had electricity, they did not have hot water until Silversmith was in high school.

“If you wanted to take a hot bath you had to heat up the water by the stove,” said Silversmith. “Cold showers were the normal every day part of life”

When Silversmiths father, Edward Silversmith, was growing up on the reservation the family farm did not have running water.

“We had no electricity or running water,” said Edward Silversmith. “We would haul water by hand in buckets from the well.”

During the night his family used kerosene lamps to light the house. They still have them to this day, but are rarely used now that they have power.

It is rare for Native Americans to continue their traditional ways, and most are the regular ‘Joe Blow,’ American, explained Silversmith. Many Native Americans do not have the opportunity to learn and experience their own traditions.

The Navajo culture played a large role in Silversmith’s life and prepared him for the military. It is customary for Navajos to get up before the sun rises each day to pray and take a pinch of corn pollen to give as an offering of thanks to mother earth, father sky and the spirit in four directions: east, west, north and south. After the offering they run east, towards the rising sun. Silversmith grew up running about four miles each morning, which helped him build a foundation for being physically fit.

For Silversmith it doesn’t matter where he practices his morning ritual, he was taught it should be done no matter where he is in the world.

After moving to his first duty station he had to get used to doing the morning ritual away from his home.

“It felt a little awkward initially,” Silversmith said. “But I would still get up in the morning say my prayer and run.”

Being able to successfully adapt to life’s changes has played a key role in Silversmith’s success in the military. Adapting to environmental change is a large part of the Navajo culture that can be seen in their teachings, songs and the Navajo creation story according to Silversmith.

“The creation story talks about the Navajo’s journey passing through different worlds until they found a place where there was balance,” Silversmith explained.

The Navajos were unique in that they adopted skills and techniques from the Planes, Pueblo and Mexican Indians. According to Silversmith, the adaptability and curiosity of the Navajo helped them thrive and become one of the largest Native American tribes.

National American Indians are no different than most other Americans. Silversmith is worried that too many people think of American Indians as people who live in teepees and ride horses bare back.

“On the East Coast there are tribes that are near extinct,” said Silversmith. “The best way to better serve our ‘nations’ is to be aware and knowledgeable about them. Whether by internet, books, art or anything. Learn about Native Americans in your local area.”

The Air Force promotes Airman to know their Air Force heritage. The Airman’s Creed states, ‘faithful to a proud heritage.’ Native Americans were the original explorers whose sense of curiosity pushed them through the Americas and became the deepest routed part of many American’s family trees. For Silversmith, highlighting this is why it is important to have events like Native American Indian Heritage Month.

November was NAIHM with the theme of ‘Serving Our Nations.’ It was a time for Silversmith to emphasize learning and awareness of National American Indian heritage from past and most importantly present.

Native Americans also call their individual tribes, nations. To Silversmith, ‘Serving Our Nations,’ means not only are we serving our country, we are protecting and encouraging our National American Indian heritage. During this year’s NAIHM, Silversmith and others read and spoke with children at Yokota Air Base elementary schools about Native American culture to bring awareness and spark curiosity in the children. He also took traditional Navajo items to show the children like a blanket, pottery, jewelry and a bowl woven from corn husks used in his wedding ceremony.  

Near the end of his time with the kids, and a brief history of the Navajo Code Talkers, Silversmith left them with a few words in Navajo.

Haa-go-a-ni, meaning goodbye, and ah-yeh-he, meaning thank you. Silversmith said Native Americans have progressed since the 1700s, and have enriched and contributed to the development of America through leading roles in such things as government, sports and the military.

According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, the US military currently has over 15,000 American Indian and Alaskan Natives serving the country, and over 380,000 veterans alive to date.

During the Vietnam War, Silversmith’s father was drafted and became a radio operator with the 82nd Airborne. During one of his last jumps over Vietnam his parachute malfunctioned causing him to come down fast over the jungle. He hit a tree and still has a scar that wraps around his leg from his calf to thigh.

Silversmith wanted to be a paratrooper like his father and tried out for the position during basic training. While he was the only person to pass all the requirements in his group, he decided against it because he would not have been able to work on his education during the intensive year-long pararescue training.

After the war his father became an electrician graduating from Brigham Young University in Utah, then moved the family back to Red Rock, Ariz., in the Navajo Nation.

Although Silversmith is from a family with a tradition of military service, he is the first and only one to join the Air Force. He still remembers calling the number, ‘1-800-AIM-HIGH,’ to find the closest Air Force recruiter to his home in Red Rock, Ariz. The closest recruiter ended up being over 250 miles away in New Mexico.

Silversmith nearly joined the Marines like many others in his family before him, but his decision came down to a brochure.

“One had a platoon running in the rain, one had a man golfing, one had a man crawling through the mud, and the other had a man standing in front of an airplane,” said Silversmith. “I think I made the right choice.”

During his time in the Air Force, Silversmith has spent 13 years at Yokota Air Base. The first time he came to Yokota he was stationed with the 630th Air Mobility Squadron, where he received the bulk of his aircraft experience.

“I was able to go on many TDY’s and maintenance recovery teams to recover broken aircraft,” said Silversmith. “It was rewarding to go recover an aircraft that was broken down range; I enjoyed the responsibility.”

The excitement, adventure and responsibility of recovering Aircraft in Singapore, Thailand or Diego Garcia as a young Airman is one of Silversmith’s favorite and unique experiences he had during his time so far in the Air Force.

His plan was to do four years in the Air Force then get out and go to school. After being stationed at Yokota his plans changed when he realized how rewarding his career could be. Upon completing his first tour at Yokota Air Base he was stationed at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., where he realized how special his experience at Yokota was.

Silversmith received orders to Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, as a way for him to make his way back to Japan.

Silversmith’s love and respect of Japanese culture started before he ever set foot in Japan. While at his first duty station at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., he met a Japanese woman from Kyoto, Japan, who was attending the University of Southern California. They were eventually married in a traditional Navajo wedding ceremony in the Navajo Nation.

The emphasis on family, kindness and respect are values shared by both the Japanese and Navajo sides of the Silversmith family.

Silversmith and his family plan to move to New Mexico on the Navajo Nation once he retires from the Air Force. There he plans to get his masters in electrical engineering, be close to his family and learn more about his heritage and culture so he can better teach it to his children.

Silversmith is very proud of his children for being able to speak Japanese and being so involved with their Japanese heritage while living in Japan and looks forward to having them learn, experience and be close to their Navajo heritage and family.

During the colonization of the American West much of the Navajo culture was lost when Native Americans were sent to boarding schools where they were forced to conform and were not allowed to speak their language or do any practices according to Silversmith.

The enormous losses to the Navajo culture during this time is one reason Silversmith values and appreciates what he does know about his culture.

“It took thousands of years to develop the Navajo practices and techniques,” said Silversmith. “Obviously there was a very good reason, and what little is known I want to keep not just for myself but for future generations.”

Silversmith is excited to move back to where he grew up and to his family on the Navajo Nation, and to learn how to better speak Navajo from his parents. A large piece of pride for Silversmith’s father is that he knows how to speak Navajo and is thankful for his heritage and culture.

The Silversmith family has an extensive tradition of defending their country through military service.

“I’m proud of my son and we live in America and we love our country,” said Edward Silversmith. “I’m proud of his military service.”

When Silversmith was first deciding to join the Air Force his father told him all of the benefits that the military provided him during his time in service. He did not tell him about the education or health care benefits but emphasized the importance of meeting many different people, cultures and places.

“When I joined, I wanted to honor my forefathers that were in the military, but what kept me in was my experience being stationed here in Japan,” said Silversmith. “I will never forget where I came from and continue to practice my beliefs and cultural values.”

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