In a first for AFN, opening ceremonies recognize Indigenous women who have served in the military
For more than a decade, Alaska Native veteran Benno Cleveland has led a color guard procession at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
“Today you see the veterans in front of you and if you notice when we marched in, we had our women veterans up front,” he told a full convention hall at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center during Thursday’s opening ceremonies.
He said this year he wanted to honor the Alaska Native and American Indian women who have served in the military.
“Because when they talk about our Native veterans, most people, they think about the men,” he told the crowd.
After the colors were presented, five Indigenous women were met with a standing ovation as they exited the hall.
Juanita Mullen is from the Seneca Nation in New York State. She just retired as the American Indian and Alaska Native veterans liaison for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“For the female veterans actually putting them first in line, was the first time I have ever seen them do this and so I think it was amazing,” Mullen said.
According to a 2020 report from the VA, only 11% of American Indian and Alaska Native veterans are women. Alaska Natives and American Indians have the highest rate of services in the military among any ethnic group in the U.S.
Emily Downey, from Ambler, said she was one of the first women to join the Alaska National Guard in 1976. She served as a medic.
“It was a big step for me, because I didn’t know what I was stepping into,” Downey said.
Flossie Davenport grew up in Nome. She served with the Navy in one of its Seabee construction battalions for five years, from 1998 to 2003.
“They just started letting females in the battalion — in the Navy when I joined,” Davenport said.
Davenport said she never thought about being a woman in service until she started to notice some of her superiors treated her differently.
“I still had a bunch of salty dogs around me — they were always like, ‘Oh, let me lift that, let me do that’,” she said, laughing. “It was a great honor to be recognized today, because I think a lot of times we just kind of get lost in the rotation of things.”
Cleveland said women’s military service in Alaska dates back to World War I. He said women also served in the Alaska Territorial Guard prior to statehood.
“Not only did males sign up, we also had women helping build camps, stations, bases here in Alaska,” he said. “We have to hold our women in high esteem. After all, they are the birth of the nation.”
Prior to AFN’s opening ceremonies, Cleveland said he asked all of the veterans if they would be willing to honor the women. He said not a single male veteran was opposed to supporting the women who have served alongside them.
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