The drum beat started slow and steady as people filtered into the Choinumni American Indian sacred burial grounds, where close to 250 tribe members lie in mostly unmarked graves dating as far back as the 19th century.
On the morning before Memorial Day, American flags decorated the plots below Pine Flat Dam, about 30 miles northeast of Fresno. Ten fallen Choinumni Vietnam and Korean War veterans would be recognized. Around 50 people helped the tribe celebrate its 20th annual gathering honoring American Indian veterans.
Delaine Bill of Dunlap sang in Chippewa and Navajo languages. He continued drumming with his daughter and two cousins as the ceremony started. Dried sage burned as a blessing.
Bill’s great-grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave “way before the white people.” But his songs were an expression of his feelings toward veterans.
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“It’s for life, it’s for respect — all those things that we believe as Indian people,” he said.
Almost 141,000 American Indian and Alaska Natives are veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Native peoples make up less than 1% of the total veteran population.
More than one-third of Native American veterans alive in 2013 served during the Vietnam era. The percentage of native peoples — almost 19% — who served in the post-9/11 period is higher than that of all other races.
During Sunday’s ceremony, two groups marched in: uniformed veterans with Amvets Post 98 of Sanger and members of the Native American Veterans Association.
Amvets Color Guard members unfurled an American flag and raised it up the flagpole. The servicemen saluted the flag as it climbed the pole, stopping at half staff.
One Amvets member read the list of fallen Choinumni veterans. After each name was read, a Native American Veterans Association representative said, “Not present.”
Audrey Osborne, 64, the tribe historian, sang a song of blessing, tapping a wooden clap stick against her palm to keep the beat. Seven men in uniform fired shots one, two, three times before a trumpet rendition of taps rang out.
141,000 The number of American Indian and Alaska Natives who are veterans
Bill’s drum circle broke the moment of silence, beating the drum and singing again as the Amvets and Native American Veterans Association members filed out of the burial grounds.
Afterward, participants and visitors went to Choinumni Park for a potluck.
Richard Olivarez of Sanger brought three of his grandchildren. Though not Choinumni tribe members, Olivarez likes to attend the ceremony every year.
“I like to bring the kids so they know what people went through and that even the Indians were fighters,” he said. “They’re veterans, too.”
The burial site is situated in the foreground of dome-like Tivy Mountain, which is sacred in Choinumni culture. Its latest veteran is Leonard Osborne, a U.S. Marine Corps member who died in 2013, long after serving in Vietnam. His stepdaughter Shannon Subia, 42, said she remembers running around the grounds as a child and attending the Memorial Day ceremony each year with him.
Being at the ceremony without her father was more emotional, Subia said. Though she is not Choinumni by blood, she feels like a tribe member.
“He taught me his traditions, how his people were,” she said. “He raised me as his own in his culture.”
The family added a headstone to Osborne’s burial plot last week.
“Just in time,” Subia said.