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.

Suzanne Hill, an Akwesasne Mohawk decked in her purple regalia, proudly hoisted the Hiawatha Belt overhead. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran, who was raised on the Onondaga reservation, had been chosen to fly the colors of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy up a campus flagpole as a recent alumna of Syracuse University.

Surrounded by several close relatives who formed a tight-knit military family, she immediately thought about her grandfather Oliver R. Hill Sr., an Army veteran who dug foxholes, built bridges and constructed roads in the jungles of the Philippines amid World War II.

“I was thinking all about [him] while I was raising our flag,” said Hill. “It was an honor representing my people.”

Suzanne Hill at the flag-raising ceremony. Courtesy of Steve Sartori | Syracuse University

Her participation nearly three years ago at the unveiling of the new National Veterans Resource Center, home to D’Aniello Institute for Veteran & Military Families, marked an important regional milestone in recognizing generations of Haudenosaunee peoples who served in the U.S. armed forces, both during peacetime and war.

“I actually thought it was inclusive, meaning the Haudenosaunee have been finally included and noticed for being part of the military,” Hill expressed. “We’ve always served. At that moment, I was, again, very proud to represent my people and the U.S. Marine Corps.”

Seeing her older brother Shawn graduate from basic training at Parris Island in South Carolina inspired Hill, 58, of Manlius, to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps four years before the U.S. invasion of Kuwait, better known as the Persian Gulf War.

She was assigned to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion, stationed out of California’s Camp Pendleton, when her unit was summoned to venture overseas with the 1st Force Service Support Group. “Our unit did deploy during Desert Storm. However, I did not go. I had a child at home,” according to Hill.

Suzanne Hill in her U.S. Marine uniform in 1986. Photo by Michael Greenlar | Central Current

Giving birth to her first of three newborn daughters only two years after enlisting in the Marine Corps didn’t derail her from still serving her country for another four years. It even motivated her to “step up my game,” particularly in competitions against her male peers.

“‘Well, challenge me, and I will beat your challenge.’ That was my attitude,” said Hill. “I was one of the top runners there. Men would always challenge me, and I hung with them, and that’s how I excelled. My mentality was whatever you can do, I can do.”

Suzanne Hill with her running team. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Hill

After rising to the rank of sergeant before her honorable discharge in 1992, she shifted her focus to raising her family. Those responsibilities didn’t prompt any hesitation for Hill, who seriously considered rejoining the Marine Corps. 

Part of her reasoning centered on economic incentives for future employment opportunities, but deep down inside, Hill also frankly desired being deployed to a combat environment.

“I became a stay-at-home mom until my girls got older. I had thought about going back, but I couldn’t be away from my children,” said Hill. “That was my biggest determination whether to go back or not.”

Although Hill contemplated another round in the Marine Corps, she instead became a contract health specialist for the Indian Health Service and even went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University’s College of Engineering & Computer Science in May 2020.

Three months later, she was invited among a select group of students, alumni and staff to take part in a dedication ceremony where Hill would permanently raise the Hiawatha Belt in front of the new campus building, flying high above her Haudenosaunee homelands.

Suzanne Hill during a flag-raising ceremony at the National Veterans Resource Center. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Brinn | Syracuse University

The Hiawatha Belt, named after an Onondaga who aided the Peacemaker in restoring harmony, pays homage to a time when the Haudenosaunee all buried their weapons of war and decided to live together in peace.

Hill isn’t shy from openly subscribing to the hallmark warrior traditions closely associated with her Akwesasne Mohawk community from the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe who live along the Saint Lawrence River. She’s still a fierce warrior at heart, claiming that her unbridled spirit “may have been embedded in me at birth.”

The National Veterans Resource Center. Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Jeremy Brinn | Syracuse University

Collectively, these permanently raised flags, including the Hiawatha Belt, affirm the uniquely enduring commitment to military service and sacrifice among Haudenosaunee peoples.

Tadodaho Sid Hill, chief of the Onondaga Nation, uttered the Thanksgiving Prayer before a small crowd attending this noteworthy occasion that united generations of Haudenosaunee veterans from the People of the Hills and beyond. 

Sid Hill. Photo courtesy of Steve Sartori | Syracuse University

Onondaga Marine Corps veteran Jerome Waterman Jr., son of Jerome “Judd” Waterman Sr., an Army veteran from the Korean War, bore witness to the celebration alongside Milton “Sam” Babcock Jr., an Oneida known to be the oldest living veteran among the Onondaga who served in the Navy during World War II.

One of some 44,000 Native Americans who served during the Second World War, Babcock became the Nation’s first fire chief and worked for the Oneida Indian Nation for more than two decades before passing away at age 93 last April.

“The short time I’ve known him, he was a very kind and gentle person. It was my grandfather, who enjoyed conversing with Sam,” said Hill. “He knew just about everybody on the Onondaga Nation going back to the early 1900s and was a walking history book.”

Syracuse University’s Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovations Mike Haynie told Central Current shortly after his passing that “Sam’s impact and legacy will be felt for eternity by the entire veteran community,” adding that the Hiawatha Belt flag will “serve as a constant reminder of his service to our country.”

Sam Babcock with Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud and Dr. Ruth Chen. Photo courtesy of Steve Sartori | Syracuse University

Babcock was among thousands of Indigenous veterans who left indelible legacies behind in honor of those who never had the chance to return home and do the same for their communities.

“That’s the way a lot of veterans honor those who have served alongside them and didn’t make it back,” said Adam J. Pritchard, a research associate at the Institute for Veterans & Military Families. “Those who returned, they remember and honor that ultimate sacrifice by what they do next.” 

Memorial Day, the federal holiday founded in the neighboring Village of Waterloo, never meant as much to Hill. She felt that Haudenosaunee heroes, including her grandfather, were never fully honored or appreciated for their contributions during the war effort.

Suzanne Hill with her U.S. Marines uniform, at her home in Manlius. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

“I served my country but I didn’t carry on that veteran spirit. That’s probably why I never really recognized myself as a veteran,” said Hill, “because to me, I served my time, but after that, it’s like they didn’t even recognize my grandfather.”

Her attitude didn’t change for decades until Albert Tarbell, a decorated Akwesasne Mohawk Army veteran, and Cecil Cooper, a Black American Navy veteran, convinced local county officials to construct an honor wall for World War II minority veterans in 2005.

Much like the construction of Onondaga County’s World War II Minority Veterans Wall of Honor, the National Native American Veterans Memorial was an equally important undertaking decades in the making.

Congress approved legislation allowing the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian to erect a national memorial for Native American veterans in 1994. However, it wasn’t until newly amended legislation authorized the Smithsonian to finance the project a decade ago. 

The National Native American Veterans Memorial. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio | Central Current

Before any construction ever began, Rebecca Trautmann, project curator for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, formed an advisory committee composed of veterans and their families that spent more than a year traveling across Indian Country. 

Meeting with key stakeholders from community members to tribal leaders over the course of several consultations helped shape the collective message that their memorial for veterans would illustrate in the nation’s capital. 

Local and regional sites of remembrance, like Onondaga County’s World War II Minority Veterans Wall of Honor, served as constant reminders to Trautmann that Indigenous communities have never forgotten about their fallen heroes.

“Everywhere we went, we saw the ways that Native veterans were honored and respected within their own communities,” said Trautmann. “Once your military service ends, you return and continue to serve and protect your community in different ways.”

The National Native American Veterans Memorial was uniquely designed as an inclusive memorial, one “intended to honor both those who served and returned and those who lost their lives in their service,” according to Trautmann.

Unlike other monuments and memorials that commemorate specific conflicts, this one seeks to acknowledge the sacrifices of Indigenous peoples — Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians — from all service branches, past and present.

It was first unveiled on Veterans Day after construction concluded in 2020, but the formal dedication transpired this past November with the easing of the public health emergency.

The National Native American Veterans Memorial. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio | Central Current

Dressed in military uniforms and regalia, approximately 1,500 Native veterans affiliated with more than 120 tribal nations descended from all corners of Indian Country to march in a procession around the National Mall as a part of that historic observance. 

It’s a much-appreciated tribute, especially on Memorial Day, but Hill emphasized that her community isn’t “fighting for the sake of wanting to be recognized.”

“We’re looking at it as, this is our country. Our ancestors sacrificed their lives for us to be where we are, and I could do the same,” said Hill. “We’re fighting for our country, as our ancestors did. They’ve sacrificed for us to still be here.”

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