Navajo Soldier shares culture for Native American Heritage Month

By Spc. Adam P. Garlington, U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs
Nov. 22, 2010

HEIDELBERG, Germany -- An adolescent girl awakes at the break of dawn lying on sheep skin on the dirt floor of a hogan, an eight-sided structure built of mud, stone and wood.

The young girl’s days are routinely filled with tending to livestock, farming the land, chopping wood, hauling water and caring for siblings. Welcome to the childhood of Pfc. Charmayne Nathaniel, a Navajo Native American from Sanostee, N.M.

“You have to learn early how to do things you’re going to need in life,” said Nathaniel, a 43rd Signal Battalion information technology specialist. “Females have to cook and clean. If a male person isn’t there to do the outside work, you take over their role as well.”

The outside work included feeding and watering the sheep, and watching the sheep, because the coyotes constantly stalked them, she said.

As a member of the functional minded and hard working Navajo culture, the Sanostee native had an atypical American childhood.

She shared that it was a new experience when, upon joining the Army, she saw people going to the mall or sporting events on a regular basis. She never stayed out past midnight with friends.

“I think I missed out on (having a) childhood like everyone else,” Nathaniel said. “(My) fun would be with my family, like a movie night, basketball or games at home.”

She said playing sports as a child wasn’t important, because it didn’t provide clothes and food, but chopping wood and cooking was important, because it provided warmth and food.

“I always took care of my brothers and sisters when my mom worked. I had to cook for them, clean for them, wash their clothes, do everything for them.”

The Navajo Soldier said it was important to do whatever her parents said to share the burden of work, because she knew the difficulties of everyday life.

Nathaniel’s upbringing helped prepare her for the transition to Army life.

A 16-month veteran, Nathaniel said joining the Army was a childhood goal, because she and her siblings spent the majority of their time outside.

Nathaniel’s home comforts were sometimes sparse; at times she lived without running water, at other times her family had no electricity.

She also grew up without technology, which is why she chose information technology specialist as her military occupational specialty, the Navajo Soldier said.

“I didn’t know anything about technology,” she said. “I wanted to learn about it, so I can bring it back and teach it to the reservation.”

Nathaniel said her family was proud and supported her decision to join the Army. Nathaniel also said her dad had second thoughts when it was time for her to leave, but her uncles had a different way of showing emotions.

“‘Don’t get hurt,’ was all they said. My uncles are mean! I always say they’re like drill sergeants.”

If she didn’t wake early and do whatever her uncles commanded without question, they would scream and yell until she completed the tasks, Nathaniel said.

“At basic training, I didn’t mind being told what to do all the time,” she said. “I didn’t have any negative feelings. I always wanted to get done what the drill sergeant said. Cleaning wasn’t a problem either, because I started at such a young age.”

In advanced individual training and now in the barracks here, Nathaniel said, other Soldiers didn’t understand why she would clean the buildings even when not on detail.

“If something is dirty, I’m going to clean it, because that’s the way I was taught.” she said. “I’m not going to wait for someone else to do it.”

During high school, Nathaniel attended school outside of the reservation, which helped prepare her for the separation from family that Soldiers face in the Army.

“Throughout those four years, I was only home during the summer and on breaks,” the Navajo Soldier said. “Even for being overseas, I’m not homesick.”

Nathaniel said as a young girl she spent plenty of time outdoors learning how to use the land with her grandma and hunting with her father, so she was familiar with being in the field.

Her grandma taught her what plants can be used for medicinal purposes and what plants are hazardous to your health too, the Navajo Soldier said.

“I remember there was a huge thing that looked like an orange,” she said. “I wanted to touch it and tell her it was an orange, but she said, ‘Don’t do that because it’s a mushroom that will blind you.’ Ever since then I was afraid of mushrooms, so I don’t touch mushrooms.”

The lessons learned from Nathaniel’s childhood and culture have translated to success in the military, said Sgt. Erick O. Smith, the 43rd Signal Battalion information technology specialist noncommissioned officer in charge.

Smith said he benefits from having Nathaniel on his team, because her mannerisms, military bearing and work ethic let him know that she is going to do the right thing.

Diversity allows people to experience situations from different perspectives, and these experiences add value to the organization and enhance mission success, said Master Sgt. Mark Jordan, the USAREUR equal opportunity senior enlisted advisor.

“The Army Diversity Office says it best, ‘Every U.S. Army Soldier, Civilian and Family Member has a different background, culture, and thought process from which he or she can draw,’” Jordan said. “When these separate differences are combined and work together, it contributes to an adaptive, culturally astute Army that further enhances our capabilities around the world.

“If the U.S. Army is to reach a global audience, diversity must be our mindset,” Jordan said. “We must be resilient in maintaining the different cultures, experiences and immeasurable talent that we all possess.”