Lessons for everyone: Airman explains importance of Native American culture

  • Published
  • By Shaun Eagan
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
"My grandmother and great-aunts cooked us seal oil and whale blubber for dinner. We would pick berries, and I remember wearing a handmade parka made from seal and beaver skin."

This is a memory of growing up in the Iñupiaq tribe of Kotzebue, Alaska. Through its customs, the tribe, whose name translates to "real people," reflects the uniqueness of the Native American culture.

According to U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leina Perez, Joint Base Langley-Eustis Native American Heritage Committee chairperson, her Native American heritage places a strong importance on living honorably. More importantly, family tradition and values have molded her into the person and Airman she is today.

Perez followed family traditions and customs by joining the military. She is proud to come from such a special background, and says the cultural values impacted her military career.

"This was my ancestors' land from the beginning; they didn't come from another country," explained Perez. "Serving in the military brings a sense of pride to being Native American and my family heritage. It's a way for me to fight for both my country and my ancestors."

November is recognized as National Native American Heritage Month, celebrating and honoring the many ways Native Americans have enriched the U.S.

According to the Department of Defense's website, approximately 190,000 Native American veterans have served throughout U.S. history.

Perez believes her military service has brought pride, strength, courage and honor to her family. Because several family generations served in the military, Perez said it was important for her to follow the family tradition, being viewed as a leader and warrior.

"My father was in the Army, my grandfather was an Army Ranger during the Korean War, and my step-grandfather was in the Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War," explained Perez. "I wanted to make them proud by following in their footsteps. I want to be someone my daughter can look up to when she grows up."

The values Perez emodies can be seen by her peers and her leadership, said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. John Petain, 633rd Force Support Squadron superintendent.

"She exemplifies professionalism with integrity, maturity and dedication," said Petain. "Her humility is a source of her strength, as she always shifts the focus from herself by recognizing the contribution of others."

Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Charles, 633rd FSS chief enlisted manager, echoed Petain's sentiments.

"Sergeant Perez brings a 'can-do' attitude to everything she does," explained Charles. "Her personal values allow her to make a huge impact around the unit. She places a high importance in making sure every task is done to the best of her ability. She plays an important role in ensuring we are always mission-ready."

Throughout childhood, Perez said she knew she was destined for the Air Force, because she wanted to fight battles so others didn't have to. She wanted to stand up and fight for what she believed in; and that was her country.

"I take a lot of pride in being a Native American in the military," said Perez. "Our culture's importance on values, traditions, and the 'warrior spirit," is an important reason as to why we're honored to serve."

Last year, Perez was named the chairperson of the Native American Heritage Committee. Under her supervision, the organization was able to host activities such as reading to children, movie nights and arts and crafts activities. One event featured a guest speaker from a local tribe who brought traditional dancers and artifacts for Native American Heritage Month.

"I want everyone to understand there are many interesting traditions and customs about our culture," said Perez. "November is a time to reflect and remember our heritage and where the Native American people came from. If people take the time to understand our culture, they'll realize how fascinating it is."