Service and Sacrifice: How Haudenosaunee Veterans View Memorial Day

This story is part of a limited series centering on the voices of Haudenosaunee veterans who reflect on this solemn day in honor of fallen soldiers throughout Indian Country.

Carson Waterman, a Seneca who grew up on the Cattaraugus Territory, was anything but enthusiastic upon being notified that he had been selected for the draft during the Vietnam War. The letter arrived a few days before his commencement after completing his coursework as a top student at Cleveland’s Cooper School of Art. 

His fate was sealed, and soon enough, Waterman would be shipped off to Southeast Asia. It frankly frustrated him. 

“At that time, it was very unpopular. All of the students and most of everybody I knew, were all against it,” said Waterman. “I was talking to my mother when I was home one time and I told her that I didn’t want to go.” 

His mother Ruby, who worked a full-time munitions assembly line job during World War II at the Curtiss-Wright factory in Buffalo, helped reshape his opinions on military service in a candid conversation following the disappointing news. 

“She reminded me that all of her brothers volunteered to fight in the Second World War because they were fighting for our Nation, our people,” Waterman recalled. “I began to look at it that way, and it was very difficult for me to ignore that.” 

The 23-year-old draftee, an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation, went on a single combat tour between 1968 and 1969. His superiors kept telling him they had to “stop communism, so we wouldn’t have to fight it here on our shores.”

Carson Waterman, 23, was drafted to the U.S. Army a few days before graduating from art school. Photo courtesy of Carson Waterman

Nearly one in every four Native Americans — compared to almost one in every 12 non-Natives — served in Vietnam. Native Americans made up an estimated 42,000 service members sent overseas. Much like Waterman’s uncles who fought in World War II, more than 90 percent of them answered the call of duty and volunteered.

A residential school survivor, Waterman and his older brother Bruce, who later enlisted in the Navy, struggled to survive at the Thomas Indian School, formerly known as the Thomas Asylum of Orphan and Destitute Indian Children. 

It was a tough time for the newly-separated family. Their father Cornelius grappled with debilitating alcoholism, a condition that directly affected the pair of siblings and their basic necessities. 

Unable to offer proper care to her sons, their mother placed them into the custody of New York’s longest-running boarding school. Waterman turned 5 years old inside that abusive institution and remained there for almost a decade before she returned to pick them up on the same day it finally closed its doors: Sept. 1, 1957. 

The Thomas Indian School campus spanned 15 acres across the Cattaraugus Territory on the Seneca Nation. Photo courtesy of New York State Archives

“All of that time, I resisted it. I was waiting for my parents,” said Waterman. “I remember the day she came and picked us up, so it was really a good feeling that I was out.”

The two brothers were fortunate enough to escape that boarding school, safe and sound, but most of all, together. It still was a taxing and tolling upbringing, both physically and psychologically.  

Traumas stemming from his childhood left him desperately in need of hobbies that would help him cope with all of his pain. He had no choice but to toughen up at the boarding school, forced to fight off bullying children and defend himself from daily beatdowns.

“It was contact, and I wasn’t afraid of that. I had no fear. I’ve been beaten up before,” said Waterman, who frequently got into fistfights with classmates while attending Gowanda Central High School only a few years later. 

Repeated disciplinary actions led him to finding a physical and therapeutic outlet in football, where he swiftly became a breakout athlete in the process. He started as a left tackle and shifted to a center defensive linebacker position before getting tapped as the varsity team’s captain. 

Once he got off the field, Waterman found new passion and purpose through another one of his talents: art. His ability to draw, sketch and paint with realism rewarded him with a prized position as a combat artist for the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, whose nickname was the “Famous Fighting Fourth.”

Carson Waterman caricatures the nickname of his unit: U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, the “Famous Fighting Fourth.” Photo courtesy of 35th Infantry Regiment (Cacti) Association

Despite his undeniable talent as an artist, depicting the horrors of war was still a daily trauma-inducing assignment for Waterman. Certain incidents he witnessed overseas troubled and reminded him of an unspeakable childhood back at home, but there were a few breaks in the clouds as well.

One moment shined brighter than the rest: When a Huey dropped off their supply of munitions, Waterman was tasked with unloading them — but upon inspecting the ammo cases containing mortars, he realized the box had come from Buffalo and was labeled with the year 1944. 

It immediately “reminded me of my mother,” said Waterman, who believed that she could’ve assembled that box of ammo all those years ago. In many ways, her memory kept him motivated to return home.

Carson Waterman outlines a group of Huey helicopters hovering overhead. Photo courtesy of 35th Infantry Regiment (Cacti) Association

“Once you start getting shot at, you become brothers, because you depend on each other to survive,” said Waterman. “I decided I was going to be a good soldier, so I’d make it through. I did the best I could to survive.”

Carson Waterman and his fellow Army squadmates in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Carson Waterman

Waterman sustained no physical injuries, but he wasn’t unscathed after returning home from his single combat tour. He’s toiled with post-traumatic stress disorder but realized many weren’t nearly as lucky since at least 226 American Indian and Alaska Native service members were killed in action.

“It didn’t really sink in until I was on my own, and then things started coming back,” Waterman admitted. “I still have post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s why I got through Vietnam, too.”

A sketching from Carson Waterman reveals an Army soldier speaking on a field telephone in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of 35th Infantry Regiment (Cacti) Association

Residential boarding schools, including the Thomas Indian School, were deeply entrenched in traditions of the U.S. military. These institutions were orderly, with drills, regiments and routines dictating the daily lives of those who were forced to reside in them. 

This aggressive national approach attempting to assimilate Native youth had been popularized by Henry Richard Pratt, the founding superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, who also grew up less than 50 miles away from the ancestral homelands of the Seneca Nation.

The U.S. didn’t hesitate in asking for Native youth from hundreds of these same facilities to fight in their foreign wars, even though not all Indigenous communities were considered citizens yet. 

More than a quarter of a century elapsed between the start of the nation’s intervention during the First World War in 1917 and the conclusion of the American Indian Wars, which ended in bloodshed at the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1891.

Colonel Richard Henry Pratt on horseback, founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite those fresh scars, as many as 12,000 Native Americans enlisted and were drafted to fight and die in Europe, participating in the first U.S. combat units that landed in France and continued fighting in every major battle until the end of the war.

Boarding school students were among some of the first recruits, with historians identifying at least 200 former Carlisle students who served in World War I, and 90 percent of its male population enlisted voluntarily. 

The Carlisle Indian School was transferred to the War Department once that institution closed immediately after the war ended in 1918. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

“Boarding schools were established in a military framework. It was a natural transition from the schools,” according to Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Senior Editor Alexandra Harris, who co-authored the exhibition and book “Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces.”

Their heroic contributions came at a steep price, with five percent of all Native service members killed in combat, compared to one percent of soldiers overall.

These ultimate sacrifices may have expedited their pathway to citizenship in the aftermath of World War I. Six years later, Congress passed the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to 125,000 Native Americans.

Boarding schools and wars share overlapping experiences that often teeter on the brink of life or death, but despite surviving both, Waterman still doesn’t regret his time in the service, now looking back decades later. 

Carson Waterman illustrates infantry troops marching through the dark jungles of Vietnam. Photo courtesy of 35th Infantry Regiment (Cacti) Association

Waterman, now 79 years old, who is touted as a “national treasure of the Seneca Nation,” has produced countless pieces that are scattered, both on and off the territories. His highly sought-after works appear in several public and private collections, most notably the New York State Museum and Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This weekend, the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum-Onöhsagwë:dé Cultural Center unveiled a new art exhibit titled “Carson Waterman: A Retrospective,” which is meant to serve as “a celebration of Waterman’s life, work, and profound impact on the representation of Seneca identity and visual culture over the past several decades.”

In spite of his amassing accolades, Waterman is still determined and equally inspired to continue striving toward a semblance of inner and personal peace through his “survival artwork.” 

Coining his self-made artistic style, Waterman considered it as a vibrant form of creativity, freedom and expression all wrapped together, something he craved inside the strict confines of the militaristic residential school as a young boy.

“I’ve been focusing on and strengthening our identity,” said Waterman. “It’s survival, survival of our culture and our history, so the artwork is an attempt to interpret our history and our culture accurately, and it’s catching on.”

Carson Waterman showcases his “survival artwork” by painting a Haudenosaunee trooper, helicopter and Hiawatha Belt amid the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Carson Waterman

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