Since World War II, a greater percentage of Natives have served in the armed forces than any other ethnic group. North Carolina, with its high enlistment numbers, now has a culturally specific event to serve them.
North Carolina has the highest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi and, at 116,114, the second-highest active duty military population in the U.S. Many don’t realize how closely those numbers overlap. Since World War II, a higher percentage of Natives have served in the armed forces than any other ethnic group.
Retired Sergeant Major Raquel Painter of Onslow County is one of them.
Painter served more than two decades in the US Marine Corps, leading humanitarian missions at home and abroad. She thrived in the military but Painter, who is Sioux and Winnebago, missed the connection of pow wows and other cultural gatherings.
She wanted to fill that void for other Native vets upon returning home to Onslow County in eastern N.C.
“I served 26 years in the Marine Corps and if I wasn’t able to get home to participate in a cultural event, I went without,” she said. “They just don’t have them around military bases. And [in Onslow] we’re outside the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast and an hour and a half from the largest Army base.”
Jacksonville, where Painter lives, is in close proximity to multiple bases including Camp Lejeune, a Marine base for nearly 100,000 active duty personnel, retirees, civilians and family members. The inaugural Onslow Veterans Pow Wow took place Oct. 2. According to organizers, it was the first pow wow in the area in 20 years.
“Pow wows fill a spiritual need. It was important to establish it so service members could attend and get that relief and guidance that they need,” Painter told Cardinal & Pine. “We really honor our warriors and those who serve. Service members sacrifice so much already. The culture shouldn’t have to be one of those sacrifices.”
Hundreds attended the event, which had both the traditional components of vendors, dancers, and storytellers, as well as nonprofits and veteran services organizations such as the American Legion. Painter, who also serves as president of Onslow County United Way, on civic affairs committees and other community organizations, leveraged her contacts to ensure a wide range of programs was available to attendees.
Painter joined the Marine Corps fresh out of high school in 1989. She found fulfillment in the humanitarian aspect, working in the aftermath of 1995’s Oklahoma City bombing and in Sri Lanka following the 2005 tsunami. She was also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where she led female engagement missions.
“In Afghan culture, men didn’t talk to women [that they didn’t know] so we were really missing out on information for half of the population, to get to know them and understand the culture,” Painter said. “So female Marines went in and did that.”
Painter oversaw a team of 20 and went on close to a dozen missions during her time in Afghanistan.
“I was learning a new culture and the differences and how much we are alike. Their concerns were the same as ours: ‘Are you married?’ ‘How many kids?’ ‘How are your kids?’ We found commonality and from there it was just easy conversation.”
Learning how to connect across cultures impressed upon Painter another reason the pow wow was so desperately needed.
“We’re the first people indigenous to this land, so it’s important for people to understand us and our culture and our traditions. It makes a difference in how you treat people and the resources you provide, because you really got to understand them first.”