CROW AGENCY -- In a week in which the Crow Tribe celebrated its culture, members also took time to recognize their military veterans, including two men who kept a lifetime secret about their important work during World War II.
The annual Crow Native Days, which started in the 1990s as a way to give tribal youth drug-free and alcohol-free activities, has expanded to include events for all ages. The week of activities, which started on Monday and will finish on Sunday, includes a warrior challenge, rodeo, a powwow, art show and Indian relays.
On Friday, the day included a parade filled with colorfully dressed riders of all ages on horseback and a Day of Honor ceremony to recognize the tribe's veterans.
Two of those vets, Pfc. Cyril Not Afraid and Pfc. Sampson Birdinground Jr., both were among the Army code talkers of World War II. Code talkers were Native Americans who transmitted secret tactical information using codes built on their own languages.
Although most often associated with the Navajo Tribe, Native soldiers from many other tribes also served in the positions. Papers have come to light in the past couple of years that revealed Not Afraid and Birdinground were in that elite group.
The morning started off with the parade through Crow Agency that featured dozens of riders on horseback, many in Native dress decorated in intricate beadwork or elk tooth designs.
The horses often were outfitted in blankets and other accessories as colorful as their riders. People of all ages joined in the parade, with many riding on saddles but some, both tots and elders, riding bareback.
A color guard at the front of the parade was followed by the tribe’s executive branch, all on horseback wearing their full regalia and feathered headdresses. Tribal princesses rode on horseback, some somber, some smiling and waving to the crowd.
The parade also included many of the tribe’s departments riding in cars and on the back of flatbed trucks. They tossed candy and bottles of water out to the crowd watching, with kids scampering to grab the goodies.
The parade ended at Apsaalooke Veterans Park, where the Day of Honor ceremony took place. Color guards from different tribes marched at the start of the event, as wind whipped through the flags displayed on one side of the veterans’ memorial.
The nearly two-hour ceremony was filled with speeches, in both English and Crow, and drum songs to honor the men and women veterans. Special presentations were also made to the families of Not Afraid and Birdinground, who are both deceased.
Crow tribal historian Joe Medicine Crow spoke of his time serving Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, talking mostly in Crow. He then led an honor dance for veterans and was joined by tribal officials and others.
Vice Chairman Calvin Coolidge Jefferson thanked all of the veterans who have completed their tasks in the Armed Forces.
“It is because of you that we’re able to enjoy what we have today,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson, a former Marine who served in the Vietnam era, talked about his uncle, his son, and grandson, who also have served or will serve in the Marine Corps.
“In the military when you honor and respect, you salute,” he said, as he lifted his hand in a salute. “Now I want to thank all you veterans. Thank you very much.”
John Walsh, former adjutant general for the Montana National Guard, mentioned the Crow warrior culture and pointed out that Montana’s Indians have had a long tradition of service in the country’s military.
“Your courage, your determination and fighting spirit has been recognized by America’s military leaders as early as the 18th century,” he said.
American Indians are serving in over 80 countries on active duty, Walsh said. Historically, Native Americans have had the highest record of service when compared to other ethnic groups.
Walsh was followed by Rachel Court, speaking on behalf of Sen. Jon Tester.
“To the veterans here today, thank you for your service to our country,” Court said. “And thank you to the families of Sampson Birdinground Jr. and Cyril Not Afraid for being here on their behalf."
Court said Tester’s office is working hard “to get them their much-deserved medals as soon as possible.”
Tribal member Donald Spotted Tail said the men never spoke about the mission, even to their own families he said “because they both believed in honor and integrity.”
The information only came out after Congress authorized the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 to honor those Native Americans who served their country in that way, Spotted Tail said.
“In the act, the United States recognized the dependence on Native American tribes to speak their respective languages during warfare to transfer messages for the purpose of confusing the enemy,” he said.
The act itself also recognized that the work of those code talkers was critical to winning World War II, he said.
“Sampson Birdinground and Cyril Not Afraid served such a mission to help win the war,” Spotted Tail said.
Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle presented members of both families with certificates recognizing the veterans’ actions during the war and also were presented Crow flags. Then all joined in a second honor dance to recognize the deeds of the two Army veterans.