American Indians from Maine have served in every war since the American Revolution, according to decorated World War II veteran Charles Shay of Indian Island, and it is time they were honored for their heroism and patriotism.
Shay, 85, will speak to State House lawmakers this week in support of a proposal to establish an annual Native American Veterans Day in Maine. In an interview on Monday, he said Maine’s Indian service members have been consistently “overlooked” in official commemorations and historical accounts of American wars. And while the yearly Veterans Day observance on Nov. 11 pays tribute to all who have served in the armed forces, Shay said it is appropriate to honor American Indian veterans separately.
“The tribes want to honor our veterans with a separate day of dancing and celebration,” he said. “If Maine decides to pass this bill, this state would be the first state in America to honor its native population with this important recognition.”
The bill’s primary sponsor, Tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said the holiday would promote greater public awareness of the American Indian contribution to national defense, as well as the inequities that have affected their civilian lives.
“Native Americans went to serve their nation, to protect the native homeland, and when they came back they were forgotten. No one was there to defend their rights,” Soctomah said. American Indians were not designated U.S. citizens until after World War I, he said, and were not allowed to vote in federal elections until after World War II.
Despite such ironies, Soctomah said, American Indian communities continue to send a higher percentage of their populations to serve in the armed forces than the national average.
In 2007, Gov. John Baldacci proclaimed a one-time Native American Veterans History Day, honoring Shay and other members of Maine’s Indian tribes. But Shay and Soctomah would like to see the event observed every June 21. That’s the date in 1775, Shay said, that leaders of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet nations arrived in Boston to offer their military support after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
“We have fought in every war since the Revolution,” he said. About 45,000 American Indians from Maine have served in the armed forces since that time, he estimated.
Shay said he experienced acceptance and a sense of equality during his service in World War II, the Korean War and during atom bomb testing in 1954. The military creates “a brotherhood of men” who are not overly concerned with issues of race and ethnicity, he said. But in civilian life, service members from minority groups routinely encounter prejudice, racism and discrimination, he said.
Last week, Shay, who served as a combat medic during the Allied assault on Omaha Beach, spoke on the issue of minority-group veterans at a conference at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In that talk, he referred to the bill pending in Maine and said the country’s first Native American Veterans Day could be celebrated as soon as this June.
Soctomoh said the proposal is supported by Maine’s veterans groups.
“I would be surprised if there is any opposition,” he said.
The bill, LD 30, will have a public hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, before the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, with a workshop expected next week. The bill is co-sponsored by tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation.