Celebrating National American Indian Heritage Month: Tones of home still ring loud for mechanic

By Pfc. Abel Trevino
28th Public Affairs Detachment

LOGISTICS SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, Balad, Iraq — Spc. Bert W. James looks like every Soldier here: dust covered tan desert camouflage uniform, sharp eyes and a calm demeanor. Beneath the surface, there's something that stands out, something very unique and distinctive.

James is Native American, full-blooded Navajo, and carries his culture with pride.

James, a mechanic with the Fort Lewis, Wa. based 29th Signal Battalion, spoke softly, calmly, about his childhood and growing up on a reservation in Arizona. He joked about his hair - he has a natural blond widow's peak - and spoke about his family and about war. He talked briefly about his grandfathers and an uncle influencing him when he decided to join the Army. Most importantly, James spoke about his heritage.

"[Back home] the elderly still believe in the old ways," James said.

When James talks about the old ways of home in Kayenta, Ariz. - in the middle of a reservation - he refers to the traditional Navajo lifestyle. He said that some of the elders still live without running water and electricity in mud huts. For the people James grew up with, life had changed and pop culture had infused itself enough to allow him to grow up no differently than American children in every suburb across the country.

"I could go out and scrape my knees and get in trouble like every other red-blooded American kid. I could always turn to reading," James said. "I did pretty much what every child did."

James said he basically grew up at his grandmother's house and she was the one who taught him his Navajo culture.

"My grandmother was a huge influence," James said. "She was a firm believer in education and through her I learned the language; a lot of the teachings. She shared them with me."

James still retains his childhood knowledge and is fluent in Navajo.

For James, his heritage and military service go hand in hand; since World War I, one of his family members has always volunteered to go and "fight for our country," he said.

"Some of the things that influenced me to be in the military were two of my grandfathers. [They] were code talkers in World War II," he said.

Another one of James' grandfathers was a prisoner of war in Korea.

James joked that he joined the Army instead of the Marines because the recruiting station was closer, but was serious about the influence his uncle had on his decision when selecting an occupation.

"My uncle told me, when I was joining the Army, that when I go, I had better learn something useful. I went back to the recruiter and told him I wanted to be a mechanic," James said.

James' uncle influenced him on picking a military career, but James joined for his own private reasons.

"[I joined] mostly for my own experience," James said. "Really, to change environments a little bit."

Despite the change of environment, James carries his heritage with him.

"When I joined the Army, my dad gave me this (a small leather pouch filled with ground white corn). When I went home on leave, my dad gave me (a smaller leather pouch). It has a stone bear inside, with ground white corn," he said. "I wouldn't exactly call them good luck charms, they're more like [for] protection."

Family is an important part of his heritage. It is the bond that keeps them together, James said. He is single and without children, but plans on passing along his heritage to his children.

"A lot of times, it's good to carry on the teachings and educate others," he said. "It's really a way of life."

James has strong convictions about his culture and heritage, but doesn't consider himself a role model.

"I'm only a positive influence for people back home," he said.

James tries to influence the children of his hometown positively, as when he was younger, there was a positive influence imprinted into him by a U.S. government teacher who taught him the Navajo word hojo, pronounced ho-JO.

"It means balance, spirit and harmony. I used to always think about that, one word being so old but having so much meaning," James said. "You can't take a person for granted, you can't take Mother Nature for granted. That one word summarizes so much."

A powerful word describes this man, his heritage and proud culture: Navajo.

 

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(LOGISTICS SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, Balad, Iraq) - Spc. Bert W. James, a mechanic with 29th Signal Battalion, is full-blooded Navajo from Kayenta, Ariz. James grew up on a reservation and joined the military, following in the footsteps of his family. Two of his grandfathers were code talkers in World War II and another one was a prisoner of war in Korea. Since World War I, a member of James' family has been in war. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Abel Trevino, 28th Public Affairs Detachment)

news photo
(LOGISTICS SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, Balad, Iraq) - Although Spc. Bert W. James, 29th Signal Battalion, grew up on a Native American reservation, he said he grew up no differently than any other American child. Despite pop culture creeping into their customs, James' grandmother taught him many cultural traditions including the Navajo language, which he is is still fluent in. He plans on passing down the traditions and language to his children, because it is an aimportant reminder of who he is. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Abel Trevino, 28th Public Affairs Detachment)