MOUNT ADAMS - During an evening orientation of a veterans’ camp at the Yakama Nation’s Camp Chaparral, Aug. 11, Yakama elder Willie Salem, a Vietnam War veteran, told those gathered there had been practices traditionally that helped warriors coming home from battle.
Many of those practices were lost with colonization, but they had been there in an understanding of the difficulty for warriors to return home, Salem told the group.
“Our old people had searched for a way for when their young people would go to war and come back,” said Salem. “When they came back, they came back changed. The old people searched for a way to heal, not only to heal the body but to heal the spirit, the mind, the heart, the soul. Our elder people, they were really good at it. They knew what they were doing when it came to psychological traumas.”
The message set a tone for a week-long Camp Chaparral, which brought together tribal veterans from around the Pacific Northwest, along with Gold Star families and VA employees for an intensive camp at a Yakama Nation facility in the foot hills of Mount Adams, Aug. 11-17.
“Each and everyone of us here has baggage,” said Colville tribal elder Soy Redthunder, a Vietnam War Veteran who worked as a spiritual leader in one of four groups (called families) at the camp. “We have that baggage we’re packing. When we leave here, hopefully some of that baggage is gone. All of that is part of this week, when you get back to your place, whether you’re working or whether you’re retired, you’ll feel better when you get back from Camp Chaparral.”
Sunday evening as part of the orientation, the large group broke into four different families, and through the week, those families gathered for long sessions based in cultural issues and healing.
On Monday morning, the group held a flag ceremony after a prayer song, presenting the United States flag and then raising the eagle staff.
Following the flag ceremony, the veterans of each branch of the military presented their individual branch colors: The Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard. A POW flag was also raised.
Three veterans conducted the setting of the POW/ MIA table, explaining the meaning of the white table cloth, the empty chairs, the empty plates, the lemon slices, the salt, the flipped over wine glasses and other details.
The group gathered in a large circle, and opened the camp.
The camp first started in the early 1990s, said Terri Bentley, Veterans Affairs Tribal Government Relations Specialist for the Western Region.
The Northwest American Indian Veteran Advisory Council had been formed to bring together different government agencies, including tribes, across the Pacific Northwest.
“The whole point was recognizing that these agencies were falling short in working with American Indian and Alaskan Native veterans and their families,” said Bentley, who noted this was particularly true with the VA. “AI/NA members served at a higher numbers per capita than other ethnicities, but they weren’t seeking VA services.”
“Every place we went, the VA or the state, they always shut us down,” said group coordinator Frank Cordero. “They told us, ‘You have Indian Health Service, go to IHS. Don’t bother us.’ When we’d go to IHS, they’d turn us down.”
Subcommittees formed under the advisory council, focusing on things like housing, employment and health care. From one subcommittee, focused on PTSD and mental health, the idea developed to bring together practitioners and native veterans, said Bentley.
“We talked about getting them to understand what it is to serve Native American veterans,” said Cordero. “They didn’t understand Native American veterans are unique. You take a veteran that they treat normally, not realizing he’s a native veteran. They don’t understand he might be different. What works on normal veterans doesn’t necessarily work on native veterans.”
A number of tribal member combat veterans, came together with open-minded leadership at the VA who recognized the agency’s shortfall in serving tribal veterans.
That idea resulted in Camp Chaparral, which is hosted by the Yakama Nation’s Veteran Affairs Program.
In total, 60 VA employees from eight different VA offices around the region are selected to attend the camp and sit alongside the native veterans in the various activities.
“I come from a family of veterans,” said Bentley. “But when you are not a veteran, and you’re working with veterans, you can’t relate in the same way. I think camp helped me early on realizing how important the work is that we do helping veterans and their families. It’s about having the ability to understand just a little more.”
There are so many of our employees who lose sight of why we are there,” continued Bentley. “This is a really good grounding tool for that, especially when you start to hear these veterans’ stories, what they’ve done for this country and how it has impacted their lives, how it has impacted their family’s lives and that ripple effect with how trauma works. It helps you get it. Even if you’re not a veteran, this is important work.”
Along with the daily family gatherings, the group sweated twice each day and participated in other cultural activities. At the end of the week, the group held a traditional feast, small powwow and a welcome home ceremony. Wednesday, elders conducted a Washat ceremony.
“People that are working to help other people heal, they themselves need to be well,” said Bentley “If they have issues, hurt, things they’re still battling, then it is important they resolve those issues.”
A number of veterans present stated the camp saved their life, speaking specifically about the healing process.
A second, similar event, the Warriors Heart to Art’s 6th Annual Retreat, will be held in Spokane, Nov. 20-24.
That event “uses the expressive arts to help vets struggling with post-traumatic stress and we are proud and honored to once again offer this healing event to the Spokane community,” according to an event brochure.
The brochure further notes the camp is funded full by Spokane community donors at no cost to veterans.