Last week, about 250 of the Buffalo Soldiers' 1,000 members gathered in Portland, Ore., for the group's annual reunion. Celebrants attended workshops, rode in mounted parades and swayed to Dixieland jazz played in honor of New Orleans-born Buffalo Soldier Moses Williams, a Medal of Honor recipient who died 100 years ago.
Among honored guests on the dais and in color guard presentations were members of the Northwest Indian Veterans Association.
If you don't see the irony in Native American veterans celebrating with the nation's oldest black veterans' association, you're like many Americans: clueless about the controversial history that links, and separates, the groups.
That history was painfully addressed a month ago at another gathering by a Native American woman whose words--to this African American, anyway--sounded hauntingly familiar.
"My people were massacred," said Eulynda Benalli, of Albuquerque, her face framed by long, night-colored hair. "It's not okay to justify what happened to us."
She was speaking at Unity '99, last month's joint convention of the national associations for black, Latino, Asian and Native American journalists in Seattle. The panel, "Rashomon Effect: Conflicting Truths on the Buffalo Soldiers," explored how the celebrated black cavalrymen came to be viewed as dashing heroes by African Americans and as murderers by some Indians.
The panel was fascinating, partly because of the warmth shared by audience members, whose histories would seem to put them at odds. "People didn't want to to argue," moderator Frank del Olmo recalls. "They wanted to understand each other's point of view."
How fitting for a panel whose title--from Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa's classic about a crime viewed differently by four witnesses--suggested how relative truth is, even when the facts are undisputed.
I'd heard about the Buffalo Soldiers, the cavalry units created by the U.S. Army in 1866 from black Civil War veterans and ex-slaves. Although African Americans had fought in every American war, the Buffalo Soldiers were special: They were the first blacks incorporated into the regular U.S. Army, and the first for whom the military could become a career. Eventually, one in five U.S. cavalrymen on the American frontier was black--the corps was seen as a ticket to a better life.
But does that adequately explain why some Buffalo Soldiers were among government forces that overwhelmed native people in the 1800s?
Panelist Jodi Rave, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, was an intern pursuing an article about the Buffalo Soldiers for the Minneapolis Star Tribune when she learned of some Native Americans' abiding resentment. Asked one: Why glorify a group "when what they did was kill native people?"
Suddenly, Rave discovered, "I had a very conflicting story."
There are so many. Panelist Victor Merina, a member of the Asian journalists organization, described finding a photo of his late father taken during World War II while he was fighting fellow Asians, the Japanese. Panelist Frank Abe described his work on a documentary about the split between Japanese American internees at a U.S. relocation camp during World War II. Some begged to prove their loyalty in combat; others adamantly refused to fight for a nation that was denying them their most basic rights.
What slice of human history contains no contradictions? Osker Spicer, a modern Buffalo Soldier whose great-grandmother was Chickasaw and whose father-in-law is part Cherokee, said: "When we talk about Native Americans, we're also talking about African Americans--the two cultures were so closely aligned [in some parts of the United States]. . . . Many of the Buffalo Soldiers were of Native American descent; all five of the major tribes from the Southeast--Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole--were intimately integrated with [blacks]."
Tragically, some Buffalo Soldiers did aid the government in the Indian Wars, he said. Yet they also "built railroads, guided stagecoaches . . . even served in Congress . . . advocating for tribal rights.
"We all have contradictory histories," continued Spicer, who in 1995 participated in a poignant mutual-forgiveness ceremony with Indian veterans. "How do we explain Native American scout units who fought [against Indians] with the army? . . . Black people died on the Trail of Tears"--the bloody forced relocation of more than 60,000 souls--"and were part of [native] communities from the chief level to the slave level. . . . They fought beside their red brothers--and against other black and red people wearing government uniforms."
Of course, some Indians resent that men "who'd just gotten their freedom in one of [America's] bloodiest wars ever . . . turned around and were sent to the plains to take away another people's freedom," Rave said recently. "But we've all experienced atrocities at the hands of the U.S. government."
As a native person and a journalist, she added, the most important thing "is that these stories, good and bad, get told."
And that people be open to hearing them. Rave's most satisfying moment on the panel occurred afterward, when journalists crowded around to thank her.
"Most of them," she marvels now, "were African American."