PUEBLO, Colo. — Earlier this summer, Mitchelene Big Man looked at herself in the mirror, wearing a dress with the colors of the American flag. As she explained it, the shiny fabric came in red for “the blood that was shed," blue for “courage," and white for "purity of heart.’’
Military insignias were ironed on the back and the arms of the dress, proof of a life spent in service: Operation Iraqi Freedom, two tours in and around Baghdad; stints at bases in Germany and South Korea. She had made the gown on a Singer sewing machine, a patchwork of different identities that she wears on her sleeves. Member of the Crow Nation. Combat veteran. Squad leader. Platoon Sergeant. U.S. Army veteran.
One patch honored Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat.
More than one hundred plied snuff can lids adorned the skirt, which rang like a cluster of silver jingle bells with each step she took. It was a special dress, a uniform, complemented by handmade moccasins, beaded hairpieces, eagle feathers, beaver tails.
“I want to show my native side, and then on top of that, I show my military side,” she said. “I’m first a Native American, and then I’m a service member.”
Designing a jingle dress
Mitchelene Big Man designs her own jingle dresses, from the color of the fabrics, to the patches on the sides and back and the cones that make the dress sound like rain. Click on the audio players to hear Big Man talk about one of her jingle dresses.
Big Man, 49, is more than that, however. Originally from the Crow reservation in Montana, she outlasted the hard life she found growing up. She is a survivor of sexual assault in the military. She is a mother who was often overseas when her own children lived with their grandmother, and is now a parent to four other children from her reservation, raising them at her home in Pueblo, Colorado, with her husband, also a veteran.
And she is the founder of the Native American Women Warriors (NAWW)), a color guard of female veterans from Indian Country. They perform a jingle dance, which some tribes regard as a healing rite traditionally performed by women. The members of the NAWW perform to heal from injuries that cut deep and they dance for others, such as Piestewa, a Hopi who loved the dances of her tribe. Since the group’s appearance at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, invitations for the group have poured in.
“We’re trying to get recognition for the Native American female veterans,” Big Man said. “A lot of people think we don’t exist in this country anymore, but we are here and we also serve in the military.’’
Big Man is a warrior — a veteran who is learning how to heal herself and others.
She joined the Army because the Marines couldn’t take her right away and because one morning in 1986, standing by the Bighorn River that runs through the Crow reservation in Montana, she looked into the eyes of the man next to her and knew he wanted to kill her.
He was a former boyfriend turned violent. According to Big Man, he tried to drag her into the water, ready to drown her after arguing all night, telling her: “If I can’t have you, nobody can.” She got away, but her next steps were to a recruiter’s office. She was tough, having served stints as a dockworker and firefighter, but she knew that if she didn’t leave him, within a year she would be “dead or in jail.”
She served two tours in Iraq, volunteering for missions just to prove herself to her male colleagues. A combat action badge was pinned on her uniform, the result of living through a mortar attack on her unit in 2005. Even as she retired in 2009 as a sergeant first class, she put her name down on a list of reserves to be called back in case they needed her again.
Michael Joyner, a staff sergeant and friend who served with her in Iraq, recalled her as one of the first people to say “I’ll do it if nobody else does it.”
“We both wear the same uniform. It doesn’t make men better than women,” he said. “She was always trying to prove that point.”
The racism she encountered as a Native American in the military bothered her.
She recalled a query from a colleague: “You’re my first Indian I ever saw. You still live in a teepee?”
Big Man said she replied “yes” and then added: “We also shop at Walmart.”
“When you ask stupid questions, you get stupid answers,” she said. “It’s a stereotyping that we just can’t seem to get past.”
Prior to the war trauma she endured, an episode of sexual assault had marred her service in the military. One night in 1995, she had found herself alone in a cabin in Aberdeen, Maryland, with a colleague who raped her. Afraid of retaliation, she did not report the crime. When she finally told Selene Valdez, a social worker at the VA in eastern Colorado who counsels Big Man, she had been carrying the secret for more than a decade.
“She can put on a smile, and hide all of her pain, it’s all internal,” Valdez said. “Her coping skills are laughter and staying extremely busy with giving back to others. She’s staying so busy that she doesn’t have any time for herself.”
On the NAWW, Valdez said Big Man “turns her hurt into something positive for her people, her Native American heritage and other women. She’s an amazing woman.” But, she cautioned, keeping busy and prioritizing other people’s wellbeing are also common avoidance strategies for patients of PTSD. Her recovery, Valdez said, "is going to be ongoing."
"[E]very day she gets up and goes forward its an advancement. She's doing good.”
An estimated one in three servicewomen experiences sexual assault during her career and runs the high risk of suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of the attack. For Native American women, whose documented episodes with domestic abuse and community violence make them more vulnerable to future trauma, the risk is even higher, according to researchers at the National Institutes for Health. War trauma reinforces the accumulated grief, a cycle that can seem never-ending.
“When I retired, it was hard,” Big Man recalled. “I was angry, tired and hurt.”
Valdez added that family, next to dancing and advocacy work, is another place where Big Man can find some respite. Big Man is married to Dwayne Cyrus, “Cy,” 43, a combat veteran who also struggles with PTSD. He remembered his attitude when she was his squad leader in 1992, when they first met in Fort Hood, Texas.
“Ain’t a woman tell me what to do,” he said he used to think.
Now he’s a stay-at-home dad who finds that the children under their care help him deal with the trauma. The tunes of the TV cartoons the children watch stick in his head. Their near-constant demands keep his attention elsewhere, with the four younger ones calling “Mom, Mom! Dad, Dad!”
“I lean on my kids to help me,” he said. “If me and Mitch were trying to help each other it’d be like two blind people trying to walk across the street.”
Having survived a rocky relationship — they got divorced twice and married thrice — the couple has found a new equilibrium in which Cyrus, who was declared fully disabled by the VA, helps Big Man take care of the children while she tours the country with the NAWW.
On Mother’s Day, the children gave him a card to thank him for being like a second mother.
A visitor to their home this summer would have walked into a house with televisions on in almost every room of their four-bedroom house, the noise crowding out bad memories. There’s Tia, Big Man’s 19-year-old daughter, along with the four children adopted from a cousin back on the reservation. The two boys, ages 5 and 4, left their foster home in Montana to join their household, both of them with fetal alcohol syndrome and learning disabilities. The girls, 9 and 6, enjoyed watching their collection of Disney movies — a birthday present, their very first from their new parents. Three dogs — Milo, Bo and Mandy — and a cat, Alex, adopted from a local shelter, roam about the living room.
Marcus, 23, from Big Man’s first marriage, and raised by Cyrus as his own, had a hard time adjusting to life on the military road. He and Tia, his younger sister, were born on a base in Germany. They traveled often between military postings and their grandmother’s home on the Crow reservation. His first Crow name translates into English as “He Who Loves His Homeland.”
“I was always the type of kid who wanted to stay in one spot and have a house,” he said.
He’s proud of what his mother and stepfather have accomplished.
“After all that sacrifice that they made, for all the change they faced, for all the nights they didn’t sleep — still to this day they don’t sleep — we made it work somehow, we made it work,” he said.
“This is my second chance to be a mother,” Big Man said.
Even though Native Americans have one of the highest representations in the armed forces, the Department of Defense has noted that “very little is known about the contributions of Native American women to the United States military.”
The department encouraged women like Big Man to share their stories with the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to honoring military women, but so far, according to Marilla Cushman, the organization’s media director, very few have registered.
Out of more than 250,000 testimonies the organization collected, only 747 are from Native American women veterans.
“Outreach is very difficult,” Cushman said.
But Big Man has found a way.
The NAWW started by accident, when Big Man and her friends appeared at the Denver March powwow of 2010 and an organizer asked them to join the procession as a color guard. Their dresses — and gender, they were the first all-female Native American color guard — set them apart.
Their initial name, “Army Women’s Iraqi Freedom Veterans,” later changed into “Native American Women Warriors” to allow for the group’s growing membership of more than 50 women veterans from all military branches.
Breaking down the steps of the healing dance
Each step in the jingle dress dance that the Native American Women Warriors performs represents a particular element of healing. Click on a dance step below to hear Big Man demonstrates the step and explain its significance in healing.
On that day in June 2014, when Big Man was dressed for an event in Pueblo, she and other members of the troupe left her house and met at the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo, a nature preserve, to deliver a jingle dance.
At the event, Mitchelene led her group to the center of a field. They danced to traditional music beating from two large speakers that stood in the shade under a leafy tree. Sciatic pain and a torn right hamstring from her tours in Iraq force her to adjust the steps to her flexibility. She stood under the beating sun, dust covering the beaded moccasins her mother had made, her feet pounding the scorched earth.
“We’re staying connected to the earth, Mother Earth,” she said. “It’s the heartbeat, the healing. Because even though the earth goes through so much, she always replenishes herself.” ◆