MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- As a young girl who grew up on the reservation in Fruitland, N.M., one Airman remembers happy ceremonies, traditions and family get-togethers. She spoke a different language, had a large extended family and lived in an area that was more than 90 percent Native American.
Tech. Sgt. April Cooper, 23d Wing command section superintendent, is proud to be 100 percent Navajo, and still embraces the culture and traditions she grew up with.
"I value and cherish every bit of heritage that is in and a part of me," she said. "I may have not been close to family throughout my years of service being away from home, but when I do go home for visits, it's always a great time to have a ceremony to have blessings given and also give thanks to Mother Earth and Father Sky."
Although military life has made it more difficult for her to visit home, she goes back every couple of years to spend time on the reservation. They hold ceremonies and celebrations; she helps out around the reservation and she spends time with her family.
"Being in the Air Force for the past 15 years has made it very difficult to be part of the traditions," said Cooper. "When I do go home for visits, my family and I always do a blessing ceremony for myself and my family's safety and well being. This involves an all-night ceremony in either our traditional Hogan or teepee, depending on the weather."
One of Cooper's close friends is Norlyn McNulty, 23rd Operational Support Squadron unit program coordinator, who has helped Cooper put on her traditional Navajo dress.
"She is very proud of her background, but not so much that she openly boasts about it," said McNulty. "If asked, she will openly share everything she knows.
"I learned to admire her," she added. "She is not the type of person to let everyday stressors get to her, and she doesn't complain about anything. She is one of the most optimistic people I've ever met. If you meet her boys, you will see that she is also one of the most loving people."
For Cooper, it's important her children be exposed to the traditions and culture so they can carry them on.
"As a Native American and a Navajo woman, my heritage is a part of me and I'm very proud of it," said Cooper. "My children are half Navajo, so I try to tell them about their heritage and where they came from to keep the traditions going. It is important to stay involved and keep the traditions in my family so that my kids can carry them on in their life."
One way Cooper gets her children involved is by letting them live on the reservation with family during their summers.
"I know she is very close to her sons, but she lets them go back to live with her family so they can be a part of the traditions," said Cooper's friend. "As a mother myself, I found it admirable that she can let them go by themselves to, not only be enriched by the culture, but also be with family as much as possible."
A big part of the Navajo culture is the language. They are one of the only Native American tribes that still use their native language for everyday communication.
"The Navajo language played a highly significant role in helping the entire nation during World War II when the Navajo language was used as a code to confuse the enemy," said Cooper. "Navajos were inducted and trained in the U.S. Marine Corps to become 'code talkers' on the front line. These men, known today as famed Navajo Code Talkers, proved to be the only code that could not be broken during World War II."
The Navajo code talkers are among many other Native Americans who have distinguished themselves throughout history. November is Native American Heritage Month, which honors and celebrates the many contributions Native Americans have made and continue to make to the U.S.
McNulty said it is important to recognize and celebrate these contributions. When asked why she thinks it is important to learn about and celebrate Native Americans and other cultures, she answered with a question of her own.
"I think a better question is why isn't it important?" said McNulty. "Why isn't it important to learn as much as you can about a different culture, especially when they were the original inhabitants of this country? I think that demands we learn more about one another."