By: Haliehana “Alagum Ayagaa” Stepetin
My dad raised me to hunt, fish, and hike, camp, build fires, and drive a skiff. He taught me to cast a line on the beach, take the hook out of a fish mouth, slide my fingers under the gills, crack the neck and bleed it. He taught me to wait until the tide gets really low to walk out onto the rocks on the reef. He showed me where the sea urchins and chitins hide. We would sit on the beach with our bounty and slurp the delicious orange eggs after cracking the sea urchin shell in half. We would hike in the hills, camp, and eat what the abundance of the earth offered us. This is how I was raised. My gender made no difference in the activities I took part in for subsistence, for fun, and as a participating member of my Unangax community.
This upbringing prepared me for everything in my life. Everything except the feeling I received for being a Native woman when I chose to serve in the United States Navy. It was reinforced from my childhood that I can and will do whatever is necessary for survival whether it be fishing, hunting, gathering, and preparing the foods we caught – despite the fact that I am a woman. I was shocked from experiencing the culture of the Navy as a Native woman. Being treated as if I am not good enough, as if my gender inhibits my ability or capability to do my job was one of the most challenging experiences of my life.
My story of service is one of struggle. Despite the odds set out against me as the only 19-year-old E-5 on my ship, and the only female in my division for a period of time, I persevered. I channeled the negativity and the doubt against me as fuel to my fire. I exerted my energy proving I could be here, I can do this, and I do belong onboard this ship, serving alongside my brothers and sisters. But, no one should ever have to prove their existence is worthy. Even so, this made me stronger.
I took all the bad experiences and made something beautiful out of them. I relish in the small victories, in the lifelong friendships made, and the feeling of purpose I had every day when I got out of bed, putting my hair in a bun, shining my boots, and arming up for another day in the Navy.
These experiences only kept pushing me to go further – without the military. I disconnected from the identity of Navy Veteran almost entirely. Upon being honorably discharged, I went home to take care of my dad who raised me into the headstrong woman I am today. To ensure the last few years for the man who ensured nothing would break me, lived a good life. The reason I even went to the Navy in the first place was to heed my warrior spirit of service. I was fighting a different war, though. I was fighting for my own independence. So that I could be ready and able to give my dad a good life when the time came.
As a Native woman, my relationship with the military was not always agreeable to every part of my identity. The Navy has a history filled with ghosts regarding the treatment of my people. The U.S. Navy pillaged the villages of the Aleutian Islands in World War II and removed only Native people from the Islands for our “protection.” You can understand the contention felt among Unangax people when I decided I would serve in the Navy. And at 17, I had to beg my dad to sign the papers.
My service was not for patriotism or anything that followed that discourse. It was for a different cause entirely. I served to lift up my people. It is my family and the Unangax people who I serve. The Indigenous people of this land who have felt the wrath of this very country’s colonial militaristic pursuits. I stood tall knowing the blood of survivors flowed through me. The warriors who had persevered throughout all militaristic and colonial pursuits reminded me that the challenges of daily life in the military were manageable – one day I would get out and make a change for other people like me to do more than merely survive in their service.
When I got out, I dove back into my culture. I danced. I made art. I sewed my own regalia. I built my own kayak. I took care of my dad. I brought him the food that feeds our soul from my village in the summers. I didn’t even think twice about my decision to join. It was worth it. I only hope I made an impact on the minds of those who made that time difficult for me; whether it was because I am a woman, I am Native, or I have an identity outside of Navy Veteran/Sailor.
Now, 6 years after getting out of the Navy, I find myself more connected to Veterans than ever. Even though the Veteran community did not help me transition to civilian life or help me with the weight of being my own father’s guardian, I found my way back to them. I surrounded myself with people who share similar experiences as me. These people were mostly Native women, living outside of their villages and traditional homelands, pursuing something greater than themselves for the sake of their family and their people.
It wasn’t until I met the folks at the UW Student Veteran Life that I felt like it was okay for me to acknowledge this part of my life as something to be proud of. I never used Veteran services other than the Post 9/11 GI Bill, nor was I very active in Student Veteran clubs throughout higher education.
I didn’t see myself as a Navy Veteran. I saw myself as a Native woman who did what I had to do to take care of my family and to start my journey of service to my people. However, thanks to the strong womxn Veterans who also feel out of place in the Veteran community, I stepped up and began telling my story.
I know I am not the only one with this story. I know many other womxn Veterans share a story very similar to mine.
We all need to step up and recreate what the image of the Veteran is. As a part of groups and communities like the Minority Veterans of America and UW Student Veteran Life, I am hopeful for a future of womxn Veterans who can feel as if they are actually a part of this identity. Who can feel validation that their own histories are honorable. Service is an act of selflessness. This isn’t about recognition. It’s about creating a home for womxn Veterans to feel inclusion; to feel proud of what they did for their country, their families, or whatever reason drove them to service.
I vow to continue to tell my story in hopes to empower other womxn like me to speak up. I will continue to lift up my fellow warrior sisters in this movement towards a future of inclusion that celebrates our service. Service is no meager task. We will no longer disregard this part of ourselves due to shame or feelings of unbelonging. This will no longer be the norm.
Stand up warrior sisters and tell your stories. We did serve. We do belong.
Haliehana Stepetin is in the second year Master of Arts in Cultural Studies program at the University of Washington Bothell. Haliehana is Unangax, Alaska Native from the Aleutian Islands, and was born and raised on the island of Akutan. She served four years in the U.S. Navy as a Fire Controlman onboard the USS Chosin CG 65 stationed in Pearl Harbor, HI. She was raised in a traditional manner in the remote Aleutians, learning to hunt, fish, and gather for subsistence all her life. Her rich roots in the Aleutian Islands have affected every aspect of her life, personally, professionally and especially academically. Haliehana is an Unangax dancer, teacher, choreographer, and composer. She has danced her whole life and recently started mixing traditional styles of dance with contemporary performance arts. Haliehana is very passionate about learning and teaching the endangered Unangax language as well as other Unangax art forms and cultural practices. When Haliehana is not immersed in her culture, you can find her fishing, hiking, exercising, or cooking.