The warrior returns

Welcome home celebration and bike run honors returning soldiers

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, Jan. 26, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Diane J. Schmidt)

TOP: Mother and daughter Maria and Sgt. Dana Baldwin with Dana's star quilt, which her uncle, veteran Roger Russell, had specially handmade in South Dakota for each of the honorees at Jan. 21 welcome home ceremony.

BOTTOM: Left to right, Spc. Theaurty Griffin, Sgt. Michael Duran, Sgt. Dana Baldwin and Spc. Matt Jenkins of the New Mexico National Guard's Military Police, 126th Company, who returned in December from a tour in Kosovo, were honored in a welcome home bike ride and ceremony Jan. 21 in Albuquerque.

Asoldier goes off to war. A soldier returns and in Native tradition, the soldier is honored.

In the year 2012, that ceremony can even take place inside a transformed restaurant in the city.

For Sgt. Dana Baldwin, 29, lately returned from a year's tour of duty in Kosovo, her parents' simple idea for a party expanded into an honor bike run followed by a ceremony honoring patriotism and the warrior spirit, a taco and enchilada dinner, and an evening performance by The Plateros.

The result was a spiritual healing and sense of renewal for a community of friends.

On a bright and mild January morning outside the Albuquerque Thunderbird Harley-Davidson, on the northern edge of the city, the strains of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" floated along with the smell of broiling hotdogs over a gathering of Native veterans revving their bikes for an honor run.

Sixty bikers from three states had answered the call. Many had a single long black braid streaming down their back, and black leather jackets decorated with feather appliqués.

A member of the Albuquerque Police Department for eight years, Baldwin served in Kosovo with the New Mexico National Guard Military Police, 126th Co.

Baldwin's ties to Native America are many. Her mother's heritage includes Pottawatomie and Ho-Chunk, in addition to Spanish, and her father is Navajo - Tó'áhání (Near to Water Clan), born for Tsi'naajinii (Black Streaked Wood Clan).

Her father Wally served in the Marine Corps from 1974 to 1978. He eventually found healing in the Red Road way of the Northern tribes, and didn't want his daughter to receive the ungrateful reception that his generation got when coming home during the Vietnam era.

"For Native veterans, hardly anything is done for them," Wally said. "We don't honor our veterans. We're doing this for my daughter and two of her friends. We got together with their families to pay tribute to them and to honor them, for family and country, to say, 'Hey, we're proud of what you're doing.'"

Originally from Chinle, Wally raised his family in Albuquerque. Dana's brother Cody, 26, looked out over the bikers and liked what he was seeing.

"It's good to see Natives can come together to support Native American military - you don't see that too often," Cody said.

Family also came from Flagstaff, Phoenix, Tucson and Winslow, Ariz., and Los Angeles.

As the bikers gathered, Chucki Begay and the Mother Earth Blues Band played. A blessing prayer was offered. The route was announced and then each of the bikers smudged themselves with sage. They took back roads up to the San Felipe Travel Center, and then returned to meet at a pre-arranged place for the honor ceremony.

It was startling to walk into the now unrecognizable Twisters restaurant. In the center was the northern-style drum group Seven Star Nation Singers, including noted traditional Lakota drummers Tom Teegarden and Ronnie Theisz, an original member of the Porcupine Singers.

The Native Honor Guard of Albuquerque brought in the flags, including a special eagle flag made for the Baldwin family by Dana's Lakota uncle, Roger Russell.

The warrior way

Boye Ladd, a well-known fancy dancer and cultural emissary, emceed the event.

He was born at Zuni Pueblo, grew up in Wisconsin with the Ho-Chunk Nation, and just last August finally returned to live in Albuquerque to see his son attend the University of New Mexico.

Ladd belongs to the Red Feather Society, an elite group of warriors who have been wounded at least three times, and he travels the country conducting honor events for returning Native warriors and recovering wounded warriors.

"The warrior returns, and stops at the edge of the village. Then he enters," Ladd explained in a later phone interview. "Our warriors are the future leaders. As warriors it's an earned right to lead and speak and express stories learned in life. Any time when you speak, when you tell your stories, it's healing.

"Protection is what takes you to war and what brings you back," he said. "The powwow was originally the honoring of the warrior."

Ladd called Dana Baldwin forward by her Indian name, North Thunder Woman, and her parents wrapped her in a star quilt that Russell, her uncle, had specially made in South Dakota.

Baldwin later described her feelings at that moment: "So many different emotions, proud, happy, grateful, I couldn't hold my tears back. Even now talking about it I'm getting teared up.

"And it was a very spiritual event for my friends who were non-Native. It was healing for them and to feel they were accepted into the culture," Baldwin said.

Her friends Michael Duran and Matt Jenkins were presented with star quilts at the ceremony. Duran's mother came forward and, crying, spoke of her pride in her son.

Then Jenkins' father Samuel, a historian and WWII veteran who drove in from LA for the event, spoke.

"This is my son, thank you for honoring him. I'm so proud of him. I have not experienced in my lifetime the cultural emotion that I have felt here today. The Native American tradition is something in our American culture that has almost been forgotten. Today it has not been forgotten," he said. "This has lifted the spirit of this whole family.

"My grandmother was a Cherokee Indian," the elder Jenkins said. "My father told me but I had paid no attention to it until today. It's overwhelming, it's been overwhelming."

Ladd responded, "Your heart expressions, your deep-felt appreciation of the pride of our people, the beauty and respect we have for the drum and the spirit, it is the same."

Then Roger Russell came forward to tell a story.

Russell, 74, a Vietnam veteran who walks with some difficulty as a result of his wounds, spoke quietly about the day he was injured.

"We got caught in an ambush," he said. "I got hit and I was lying on the ground feeling sorry for myself."

He named those who had also fallen around him and who died that day and his voice caught in his throat.

Then he continued, "I heard someone's voice coming from here, inside of my chest, 'If you wanna live, get up and walk.' There were three of us who humped out.

"That voice came to me again many years later in difficult days, 'If you wanna live, get up and walk.' No matter how difficult that may seem, I take that with me every day," he said, "it's hard to walk."

Russell concluded, "Whatever nation you come from, we all bleed the same, we all bleed red."

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