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Cemetery Honors Native American Veterans

November 11, 2012, 9:57 PM by Derek Olson

Cemetery Honors Native American Veterans
ROSEBUD, SD -

Freedom isn't free.  To veterans all across the country, it's more than just a catchy phrase. It represents sacrifices made to protect our way of life.

Sacrifice is something that Rosebud Sioux tribal member and Army veteran Eldon Redfish knows well.

"I spent about eight years in the Army.  I reenlisted once, spent two tours in Vietnam and a year in Korea," Redfish said.

"The draft didn't really make a difference to us. It was part of our culture to serve," RST Veterans Affairs Director and Vietnam veteran Orlando Morrison Sr. said.

The same is true for Donovan George, who recently returned from a year long tour in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard.  George kept a tribal flag with him throughout the deployment.

"I just had it with me for my comfort and for my tribe, here.  I had it all over northern Afghanistan," George said.

The tradition of military service runs deep across Indian Country.  Native Americans serve at the highest rate per capita out of any ethnic group.  In fact, there are around 4,000 military veterans enrolled in the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

"Going to college, going to the workforce or whatever were not as easy to do.  Going to the service was a natural type of thing," Redfish said.

But those opportunities aren't the only reason why so many Native people choose to fight for our country.

"It was an honor to serve, and a lot of the other Natives here feel the same way," Morrison Sr. said.

"Our people have always been warriors, so going into the service is kind of a natural thing to do," Redfish said.

"It's just built in us.  Maybe it's genetic or hereditary? I don't know what it is but it's there and it's always going to be there," George said.

One of the promises made to military veterans is the honor of being buried in a military cemetery.  But the Black Hills National Cemetery is more than 200 miles from Rosebud.

"Really, we only have one option right now, which is in Sturgis, and I think a lot of veterans would've liked to have been buried there and their families to be buried there," Redfish said.

Soon, there will be a much closer option for military veterans and their families thanks to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Veterans Cemetery, which is located on the reservation south of White River.

The project was made possible by a $7,000,000 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  It's the first tribal veterans cemetery in the country.

"This will be the first tribe in the nation to go after this grant and get it," Morrison Sr. said.

The grant pays the cost of the tribal cemetery's construction, which is well ahead of its scheduled completion date of Memorial Day of 2013.

"The winter didn't slow them down too much.  That's why we're here today at 75 to 80-percent complete," Morrison Sr. said.

When finished, the tribal cemetery will be in the shape of a turtle, one of the most important symbols in Lakota Culture.

"It'll be a beautiful place and an honor to be buried there," Redfish said.

There are already 600 crypts in place at the cemetery with room for more.  For many veterans, it's assuring to know that when the time comes, they will be honored forever in their homeland.

"It's more than just a comfort.  It's peace of mind for my individual family and for the relatives here," George said.

"This is our land, our home, and to be able to be buried there and also to have the honor of being buried in a national cemetery, I mean, everything just comes together," Redfish said.

Tribal veterans that have completed a required amount of time in active duty service will be eligible to be buried at the cemetery.

Officials with the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge have also received a tribal cemetery grant from the Veterans Administration.  Construction is set to begin there next summer.

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