AFDW civilian Airman shares his life as an American Indian

  • Published
  • By Bobby Jones
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
Joint Base Andrews members were educated by a resident Air Force veteran on what it's like to grow up as an American Indian on an Indian reservation during an American Indian Heritage Month celebration at the Community Activity Center here Nov. 30. This year's theme was entitled "Service, Honor and Respect: Strengthening our Cultures and Communities.

Retired Senior Master Sgt. Chuck Ashkii Zhoni Tsinnie, 11th Force Support Squadron marketing illustrator, agreed to speak at the event after the original guest speaker cancelled due to illness.

"I love sharing my culture and my life as a full-blooded Dineh Indian who served this nation," said Tsinnie, an Air Force veteran with 28 years of service.

Tsinnie began his presentation with an authentic drum beat, while singing in his native Dineh tongue. He stopped momentarily to reference the cadence beat of the drum to the human heart.

"The drum beat that I'm performing is like that of the human heart," said Tsinnie. "The drum beat made famous by Hollywood is not authentic. If our hearts were to beat in that cadence I guarantee you that you would be having a heart attack," said Tsinnie jokingly, rendering laughter from the crowd.

Tsinnie, an accomplished artist, silversmith and graphic illustrator, also utilized various handcrafted items created by himself and his daughter to illustrate and educate audience members about the realities of American Indian culture, while dispelling Hollywood myths.

"I know that Hollywood has sold the world that the tent-like homes of American Indians were called Tee Pees. However, they are actually called lodges," he said. "And they could be considered the first mobile homes, because they could be set up in about one hour. And the lodge could be dismantled for travel to a new location in half that time."

While at center stage, Tsinnie chose one of his most cherished items in his possession - an American bald eagle feather attached to the back of his ball cap. Tsinnie then pulled off his ball cap and held the feather upright.

"This is the feather from America's most majestic symbol of freedom, the bald eagle. To many American Indians, it is a very special keepsake. It demands respect. It also represents a native warrior. It is how I send off my special conversations with my creator," said Tsinnie proudly.

Tsinnie later gave Col. Ken Rizer, 11th Wing/Joint Base commander, and Maj. Gen. Gerald Caron, 79th Medical Wing commander, a hands-on look at his own hand-carved bow. Tsinnie, who learned the labor-intensive craft from watching his father, is one of few American Indians in the U.S. that still practices the ancient craft.

Tsinnie, is from the Dineh nation, better known as Navaho, is also an experienced public speaker who attributes his knowledge of Native American culture through his studies, family lineage and life experiences on the reservation.

Tsinnie educates people in the National Capital Region about the proud heritage of his people and the struggles they faced through the use of show and tell, films, slides and formal presentations.
His speaking engagements include such venues as the Defense Information School, Fort George G. Meade, Charles County Lions Club, Clinton, Md., and a recent one-day Pow Wow at the University of Maryland College Park Md. on Dec 3.

At the conclusion of the event Rizer thanked Tsinnie for his military service and educating everyone about his native ancestry.

"I am so glad that our own Mr. Chuck Tsinnie was able to share his rich cultural heritage," said Rizer. "Listening to his story had a personal impact on me and clearly highlighted that his 28 years of service to the Air Force was greatly influenced by the values of community and helping others passed down from his family and upbringing on the Navajo Reservation," said Rizer. "We are truly proud to have him as part of our team at the 11th Wing."

After accepting a gift, Tsinnie stepped back and sharply saluted Col. Rizer, who returned the courtesy.

Tsinnie received positive reviews from audience members.

"The feedback that I received tells me that there are many who still want to know the real history. I don't claim to be an authority on my culture or any culture. I just share my own life; my upbringing and my service to this nation and what I have encountered from people I have met. Some good, some bad... but, if I can change only one person's attitude or let them walk away with a genuine respect for the American Indian--that is good."