Ten years ago in New Jersey, a house fire spread through Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Michael Weiant’s family home. It destroyed family records and other documents, muddying any potential attempts to trace his family’s lineage.
Through help from his biological father and other resources, Weiant, who is stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base, eventually discovered a new layer of his identity: being a descendant of the Ioway, an Indigenous tribe with branches in Kansas and Nebraska, and a southern arm in Oklahoma.
The new discovery has been an opportunity for Weiant to understand his Indigenous roots and examine the storied American history between Indigenous communities and military.
“It’s important for me to learn and know about (the history),” Weiant said.
Weiant was born on a naval base, raised in Kentucky and then moved to Michigan, where he decided he wanted to be in the Air Force. His father had features that Weiant described as “resembling facial features, skin tone and hair” of many Native Americans.
Other crucial records of other links to his Indigenous family history were lost decades ago in an earlier house fire.
“On my mom’s side of the family, there was always this strong belief that hey, we may have Native American heritage,” Weiant said. “However, when my grandfather was about 6, his mother died in a house fire. In that fire, a lot of our family records went down with it.”
Growing up, Weiant’s mother kept dream catchers and needlepoint art illustrations of Native American figures around the house. Then, at 28 years old, Weiant reconnected with his biological father, who pointed him to someone who could answer questions about his lineage.
Weiant discovered he was a descendant of the North Ioway tribe, whose ancestral lands are spread across what is now Kansas and Nebraska. The tribe also has members located in Oklahoma who are recognized as the Ioway tribe there.
Weiant connected with a cousin, Lance Foster, an anthropologist and archeology professor with expertise in Native American culture and history. Foster, a member of the Ioway Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, serves on the tribe’s council and is a tribal historic preservation officer.
“There’s a few books and movies out there he was a major part of, so I got lots of information out there about our tribe,” Weiant said.
While his maternal grandparents were Christians firm in their belief, aspects of Indigenous spirituality pulled Weiant in. During family time with Foster, he learned the Ioway tribes are polytheistic, believing in multiple gods who supply the Earth with resources and life, which people must give back through acts of gratitude, a common practice in many Indigenous tribes.
Foster also taught Weiant other information, such as the social ecosystem that lies within the Ioway tribe and members’ responsibilities related to age, gender and experience.
“We went to the tribal page and went through the informational pages of what was available for the Ioway tribe,” Weiant said. “It was interesting to read those things and learn about them. Yesterday, we talked about the impact of those people to get me to where I am today.”
Weiant described learning about the Ioway tribe as “eye-opening.” He could see the correlation in the tradition and rituals in his every day life, recognizing one of his son’s Boy Scouts’ Arrow of Light ceremonies mirrored a tribal ceremony of when a boy transitions into manhood.
“Even when he did that ceremony, one of the local tribes presented the kids with arrows to symbolize their crossing,” Weiant said. “As we go through Scouts and talk about, hey, a lot of these ceremonies come from the Native American heritage, and there’s a lot of military in the Boy Scouts, we can talk about the origins and learn this is why we do things in the Scouts.”
His 20 years of military service also align with demographics data related to Native Americans’ participation in the armed forces. According to the United Service Organizations, American Indian and Alaska Natives serve at a higher rate than any other demographic in America.
Across the 547 federally recognized tribes, nearly 19% of all recognized Native Americans have served in the armed forces, compared to the average of 14% in other ethnic groups.
“Native Americans have served in all of America’s conflicts,” Weiant said. “It was interesting to learn that Native Americans have been a part of this just as the Americans who were taking care of their homeland.”
This, too, also opens conversations up about historical interactions between Native Americans and the United States military.
Acts of genocide and forced land removals were conducted and enforced by the armed forces, including the act of genocide committed against the Yakama Tribe led by Colonel George Wright in the 1850s. Efforts to remove Wright’s name off the Fairchild Air Force Base is still being reviewed with the Air Force’s headquarters.
“The tribes, the Native American people, the early settlers had to got through a lot to get to where we’re at today, just like we had to go through our things to get to wherever our kids are going,” Weiant said. “I know that it’s shaped America and the Armed Forces to be where we’re all at today.”
Weiant is now seeing the ripple effects of returning to his Indigenous roots. It encouraged his wife to examine her French maiden name, tracing her family back to the same people who interacted with Indigenous tribes through trade and community relationships.
With two other children, Weiant hopes to engage them into the Ioway tribal traditions through dinner table talks and other simple educational opportunities. For example, Weiant, an avid hunter, acknowledges the ease in teaching his kids about the significance of life in every creature journeying on Earth.
“As my kids are growing up, getting older and able to understand and conceptualize things better, I’m able to sit down with them and say, ‘Here’s what I understand about this,’” He said. “Maybe that’ll (help them) start digging into things and learn about them together.”
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