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By tradition, American Indian people have always embraced their warriors upon their return from batt

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URL: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_4405009,00.html

Wake for an Indian warrior

Oglala Sioux bestow a lasting tribute - a name - to first tribal fatality in Iraq

By Jim Sheeler, Rocky Mountain News
January 21, 2006

KYLE, S.D. - Two miles from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation the car radio crackled, then locked onto the signal.

"I understand they are currently escorting Brett's body back," the disc jockey said. "There are several police cars, followed by the hearse and vans filled with Marines. We'll let you know when they are on the reservation."

Inside their rental car, two Marines from Colorado stared out at the road, winding through the rolling brown grass of the desolate Badlands. A few cars ahead, through the back window of the hearse, they could see the flag-draped casket of the first Oglala Sioux fatality of the war in Iraq.

A few minutes later, the disc jockey broke in again.

Right now they are at the reservation line with the body of Corporal Brett Lundstrom," she said. "I've got eight songs queued up here, and we will play them back to back. So here they are, going out to Corporal Lundstrom . . ."

She started with a spoken word piece that began just as the procession rolled across the reservation line.

"Throughout time, American Indians have had to defend themselves and their way of life," said the solemn voice of songwriter Wil Numkena. "American Indian warriors have a long tradition of protecting their families, tribe and nation . . ."

The Marines listened as they drove past weather-beaten wooden houses and lone mobile homes, through the second poorest county in the United States, toward the geographic center of the 2 million-acre reservation.

"By tradition, American Indian people have always embraced their warriors upon their return from battle," the voice on the radio said. "Embraced them in heart, embraced them in spirit . . ."

Since arriving at the home of Cpl. Lundstrom's mother in nearby Black Hawk to inform her of her son's death, Marines from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora had spent two days helping with plans for a nonstop, 42-hour wake on the reservation - the beginning of nearly five full days of traditional honors.

As the procession advanced, residents poured from their homes. The hearse passed families sitting on the hoods of their cars, their children wrapped in colorful blankets. One couple stood at the side of the road, their heads bowed. A boy on horseback watched with his dog near a barbed-wire fence. A man in a rusty pickup stared from atop a grassy hill.

The procession continued to grow as cars from the side of the road pulled in, stretching the line for more than five miles.

On their car radios, the tribute continued.

"We mourn, but honor the warriors who have given of their lives in the field of battle. We embrace their spirit, for they are our very breath of life.

"Great Spirit, we ask of you to receive our warriors."

From hearse to wooden wagon

Three tribal chiefs in feathered headdresses waited on horseback off to the side of the road, along with a dozen other riders and a small empty wooden wagon.

The procession arrived from over a hill, and as the Marines got out, the two bands of warriors nodded to each other.

The Marines lifted the flag-draped casket from the new Cadillac hearse, transferred it to the old pinewood wagon, and fell in line, issuing clipped commands under their breath. They stood at attention in spotless dress blue uniforms, white gloves and shiny black dress shoes.

The Oglala Sioux escorts wore blue jeans, Windbreakers and dusty boots. They spoke to their horses in the Lakota language.

"Unkiyapo," someone said. "Let's go."

They walked together, the Marines marching in crisp formation behind the chiefs. The last horse in the procession - an old paint - ambled along behind them all. In a funeral tradition that goes back generations, its saddle was empty.

The procession was quiet, other than occasional war whoops and horse whinnies, until it reached the gym at Little Wound High School. At the parking lot of the school, one woman sat alone in her car, crying.

Then the drumbeat began.

Inside the gymnasium - "Home of the Mustangs" - a 30-foot-tall tepee dominated one end of the hardwood floor.

The Marines brought the flag-draped casket to the front of the tepee, then two of them took their post at each end, beginning a shift that would last for the next two days.

Several rows of elderly men moved forward slowly, some supported by gnarled canes. Many had pulled their hair into dark gray ponytails, framing faces that looked like the landscape.

Many of them wore old caps and uniforms emblazoned with distinctive patches: Airborne, Special Forces and the revered combat infantry badge - along with dozens of gleaming medals. On the back of their caps, some also wore a single eagle feather.

At the front of the tepee, a funeral director opened the casket.

Descendant of Chief Red Cloud

Cpl. Brett Lee Lundstrom grew up in the wake of warriors.

Among his distant relations was Dewey Beard, also known by the Indian name Iron Hail, who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and who also survived the 1890 massacre at nearby Wounded Knee. A grandfather on his father's side was Red Cloud, one of the great Lakota leaders of the 1800s.

More recently, his great-uncle, Charlie Underbaggage, was killed at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Another great-uncle, Alfred Underbaggage, was killed in Korea. He has relatives at Pine Ridge who served in Vietnam and Desert Storm. His father, Ed, was a career Marine, and retired recently as a major.

At the time of Brett's death, his brother, Eddy - his only other sibling - was serving in the Army, stationed in the Iraqi hot spot of Tikrit.

"He was born to be a Marine," said Philip Underwood, who first met Brett when they were teenagers. By then, Lundstrom had long since decided to join the armed forces. The two friends spent the bulk of their time razzing each other, rarely serious - until it came to the Corps, which spawned a conversation that's rarely spoken, even among the best of friends.

"As a friend, he told me one time, 'I will die for you,' " Underwood said.

Lundstrom's parents grew up on and around reservations - his father at nearby Rosebud, his mother at Pine Ridge - but due to Ed Lundstrom's job with the Marines the family moved around the country, spending most of their time in Virginia.

Though the family returned to the reservation only periodically - primarily when Brett was young - Brett retained an interest in Indian tradition.

In January 2003 he enlisted, not only in the Marines, but in the most dangerous job in the Corps - one that would almost certainly send him into battle.

"I always told him he volunteered twice. Not only did he volunteer as a Marine, he volunteered to be infantry," Ed Lundstrom said.

"I tried to talk him out of it. He had so many other options besides enlisting. But he knew what he was getting into. He went into it eyes wide open," he said.

Brett served three months in Afghanistan in 2004. Nine months later, in September 2005, he headed to Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

One result of his frequent moves to new towns: The strapping 6-foot-2-inch tall Marine with the wide grin had no problem making new friends. The last entry on his Web page - written from Iraq - said, "I'm outta here in three months and I can't wait to come to Colorado."

His parents recently divorced, and his mother, Doyla Underbaggage Lundstrom, planned to move to the Denver area this month. After his hitch was up with the Marines, Lundstrom had talked of settling near her, and becoming a Broomfield police officer.

On one of his last nights in Colorado, Brett had spent the night in his aunt and uncle's home in Thornton, in the same room as his cousin, 13-year-old Richard Munoz.

Before he crashed on the couch that night, Richard said, the Marine left him with his last words.

"He said, 'Live life while you can,' " the boy remembered. "Then he went to sleep."

Cpl. Lundstrom was killed by small-arms fire Jan. 7 in Fallujah. He was 22.

His people bestow feather

Next to the casket in the Pine Ridge gym stood a tall staff crested with buffalo hair and lined with eagle feathers to represent local members of the tribe stationed in Iraq. The middle of the staff was pinned with photos of their faces.

A similar memorial was set up in the school's cafeteria, by mothers who formed a support group. Every Wednesday, they huddle in a sweat lodge, where they pray for their deployed children.

"Sophia Young Bear" . . . "Jason Brave Heart," their names read, in part, "Kimberly Long Soldier" . . . "Lisa White Face" . . .

Atop them all was the photo of Brett Lundstrom.

Upon their return from Iraq, tribe members receive the highest honor for bravery: an eagle feather. If they are injured in combat, the feather may be stained red with blood.

Before the first night's ceremony began, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran named John Around Him looked at the staff, and then at Brett Lundstrom's flag-draped casket.

"He earns the American flag from his government," he said. "He earns the eagle feather from his people."

Near 11 on Saturday night, the gymnasium fell silent. Along with his first and last eagle feather, Cpl. Lundstrom was about to receive something even more enduring.

"This evening I want to take a few minutes of your time to name my grandson," said Birgil Kills Straight, Cpl. Lundstrom's great-uncle.

"Before he enters the spirit world, it's important for him to have an Indian name, because that's how the ancestors will know him," he said.

Earlier that night, Kills Straight had gone to an Inipi, a sweat lodge, to pray for the name, and to ask the spirits to guide the fallen warrior.

After the ceremony, long after midnight, the Marines would take Lundstrom's body into the tepee, where Lakota beliefs hold that the spirits of Lundstrom's ancestors would communicate with his.

First, Kills Straight said, they needed to know who he was.

"His name is Wanbli Isnala," Kills Straight said, and then translated: "Lone Eagle."

With that, he took the eagle feather, walked to the open casket, and placed it on the Marine's chest.

"He, alone, above everything else, is an eagle," Kills Straight said. "He will fly to the highest reaches of the universe. He may bring back news to us in our dreams."

He looked to the stands of the stadium, and spoke of Lundstrom's well-known warrior ancestors.

"The blood of these people you've probably heard of runs in the blood of Brett . . . this is who Brett is," Kills Straight said. "He is a warrior."

After placing ceremonial grasses in the casket and offering prayers in Lakota, he turned again to the crowd.

"Now I want to name my other grandson," he said.

From the back of the room, Pfc. Eddy Lundstrom walked in wearing his desert camouflage uniform, the one he was wearing only a week earlier in Tikrit, when told of his brother's death. As the only surviving son in the family, he had the option to spend the rest of his tour stateside.

Instead, he plans to leave Tuesday to go back to Iraq.

In the days leading up to the naming ceremony, as Birgil Kills Straight searched for the proper names to bestow on the two brothers, he said he specifically wanted a name that might help ensure Eddy's safe return.

As the 21-year-old private stood at attention, his shoulders straight, his fingers curled slightly at his sides, Kills Straight took out another eagle feather.

"His name is Wicahci Kailehya," he said finally.

"Shining Star."

Anguished cry wonders why

American Indians have the highest per-capita participation in the armed services of any ethnic group. According to the Web site icasualties.org, 23 American Indians and Alaska Native Americans have died in Iraq as of the end of last year.

"People always ask, why do the Indian people, who were treated so badly, step forward to serve their country?" said James Shaw Sr. during one of the ceremonies. "It's that good old nation pride."

For John Around Him, an Army combat infantry veteran who served in Vietnam and whose son recently returned from Iraq, the bond is more tangible.

"In 1876, the Lakota Sioux took that flag from Custer," he said, nodding toward the U.S. flag near the casket. "So that flag is ours, too."

Still, after so many centuries of battle, they also know the consequences all too well.

"I saw his name on CNN and I let out a war whoop," said Velma Killsback - whose daughter served in Iraq - as she looked at the casket that held Cpl. Lundstrom. "I sat here in disbelief, wondering why. For a war that shouldn't go on."

On the reservation, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1, the war in Iraq is largely unpopular. The men and women fighting it, however, never are.

"When we would have late-night talks, he would tell me how he was fighting for me to do the things I do in everyday life," said Brett's cousin Amanda Munoz. "No matter how much I was against it, I gradually understood. No matter how much I hated it, and said, 'Please Brett, don't go,' he was doing what he wanted to do. It was his calling."

Generosity of the star quilts

By the time the wake entered its 30th hour, eyes had begun to sag, clothes had rumpled and stubble covered the faces of many male mourners. The energy level never waned.

Periodically, drum groups formed circles that pulled the drowsy from the bleachers. Visitors ate buffalo soup and fry bread.

While most tribe members left each night to return home, some slept near family members on the floor of the gym, or under the bleachers, refusing to leave the man few of them had ever met.

All the while, the group of 12 young Marines from Colorado - most of whom had never visited an Indian reservation - continued to post watch in 30-minute shifts.

They stood without flinching, listening to relatives cry over the open casket, and as friends and family members placed letters, a rose and sports jerseys alongside his body.

On Saturday night, while many of their friends back in Colorado concerned themselves with the outcome of the Denver Broncos playoff game, the Marines watched as the family showed childhood photos of Brett Lundstrom's life, projected on a screen next to his open casket.

After the ceremony on the reservation, they would head back to Colorado for Lundstrom's burial at Fort Logan National Cemetery.

"I hope they will take this message back, that they'll say, 'We went to Pine Ridge, and it was one of the greatest honors we've ever seen,' " John Around Him said. "They're witnesses, to take this honor and share it."

According to Staff Sgt. Kevin Thomas, they have no choice.

"I was a history major. I learned about the Western expansion, I learned about the Indians," Thomas said. "But I never really understood."

As the ceremony progressed, many of the mourners brought handmade gifts, including elaborate dreamcatchers, miniature illuminated tepees and traditional star quilts. By Sunday night, more than 50 of the quilts - which can take weeks to make and can sell for between $300 and $600 each - lined an entire wall of the gymnasium.

Then, as is customary, the family gave them all away.

"Value doesn't mean nothing to the family - earthly property, it doesn't mean nothing right now - it's life that has worth," said 82-year-old Sylvester Bad Cob, a World War II and Korean War veteran. "They give it out now, but they'll get it back someday."

One by one, the family called up everyone who had helped organize the ceremony, and presented them with one of the elaborate star quilts.

They began with the Marines.

"I had a picture of this in my mind, but to actually see it . . . It's just overwhelming," said Capt. Chris Sutherland, shortly after Doyla and Ed Lundstrom wrapped him in one of the quilts, and - as they did with each of his Marines - sealed their gift with a hug.

"If you think about it, in our culture, we give thank-you notes," Sutherland said, shaking his head. "Just thank-you notes."

Once the gifting ceremony was over, however, the Lundstroms found out that Sutherland also had something to return.

As the gym once again quieted, Sutherland took out a small red velvet bag, and walked toward the Marine's parents.

He dropped to one knee and tilted the bag. He then pulled out a watch - the same one that the corporal was wearing when he was killed. He handed it to Ed Lundstrom, who hadn't slept for the past 36 hours, while remaining near his son's casket. The former Marine major held tight to the watch, then crumbled in tears.

Sutherland tipped the bag again, and softly folded the remaining contents into the hands of Brett Lundstrom's mother:

Her son's dog tags.

Sunday night near midnight, 65-year-old Regina Brave stood up from the bleachers and made her way to the floor.

"As a rule, I don't go to wakes, I don't go to funerals. But for some reason, I had to come to this one," she said. "After I heard about him, I knew I had to be here. I walked for a long time."

Two days earlier, Brave had hitchhiked more than 100 miles across the reservation to attend the wake. For the entire journey, the Navy veteran carried one of her handmade star quilts, in memory of her son, a Marine who served during the first Gulf War. Earlier that night, the family gave the quilt away with all the others.

"My father told me, 'Everywhere you go, you're there for a reason,' " she said. " 'You're either there to help somebody, or they're there to help you.' "

Inside the gymnasium, Brave joined more than a hundred men and women who lined up behind the Colorado Marines, for the last official ceremony of the wake, the "Final Roll Call."

She was soon joined by men and women from all services, ages 19 to 90. Some hobbled in walkers, others stood in desert camouflage, some wore the same clothes they had for the past two days. As Sunday stretched into Monday, they came to attention.

For the next 15 minutes, they all waited for their name, and then barked the same response:

"Here, Sir."

"Here, Sir."

"Here, Sir . . ." each of them said, one after another, until they reached the last veteran in the building.

"Corporal Brett Lee Lundstrom . . .

"Corporal Brett Lee Lundstrom . . .

"Corporal Brett Lee Lundstrom."

Finally, Capt. Sutherland answered for the Marine who never would.

"Not here, Sir," he said.

As the Lakota warrior songs began, John Around Him took the microphone once more.

"This ceremony will continue on - because in the past, in our history with our great warriors, and how they defended our land, their culture and their way of life - it passes on, generation after generation," he said.

"These veterans, they love us. They care for us."

He looked over at the groups of old men and women, the groups of young ones, and thought of all the wars in between.

"To all the veterans who are here tonight, welcome home," he said.

He then looked over at the open casket at the man with a feather on his chest, and said it again, "Welcome home."

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Copyright 2006, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

URL: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_4405009,00.html