Native American Heritage Month: TSgt. Shaylee Reyes: Creating a beautiful future

  • Published
  • By Karen Petitt
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Clothed in soft buckskin that was meticulously beaded by her grandmother and holding an Eagle Fan that only enrolled tribal members are allowed to possess, Tech. Sgt. Shaylee Reyes of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe said that “to be seen and understood” is important for the Native American people.

“It’s easy to be overlooked, and my mother often says we are an invisible people,” she said.

“My son experienced this in school recently with a social studies simulation where they were building a new civilization and upon coming across [indigenous people,] the teacher asked what they should do with them? The class response was to ‘kill them.’ My 12-year-old son stood up and said ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m Native American and I don’t like where this is going,’ so they decided to trade instead. I was thinking that it just shows how easy it is for people to make light of a situation or take advantage of other people if they don’t know them personally or have a connection.

“After the class realized their choices affected someone they knew, they changed course. That’s why it’s so important that we are seen. The Native American people are still here, and we can’t be overlooked.”

This is just one reason why she is proud to tuck an eagle feather into her hair and don a “fancy shawl” in an effort to demonstrate a portion of her heritage through dance and story. It’s something she’s been sharing throughout her 14-year military career as a medic wherever she’s been stationed—California, Alaska, and now here in Illinois.

Her brother, Nolan Brown, runs the cultural department for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, Idaho, and explained how they are the modern descendants of the many Shoshone and Bannock bands whose expansive territories included portions of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, even ranging as far as Canada and Mexico. In 1804, the teenage Shoshone woman known as Sacajawea became part of the Lewis and Clark expedition and her participation was critical to the journey. Other notable people were Chief Tendoy, of the Mixed Bands of Shoshone, Bannock, and Sheep-Eaters, who signed the unratified Virginia City Treaty of September 1868. Also the Bannock Chief Taghee who signed the July 3, 1868 Treaty of Fort Bridger, guaranteeing peace and a reservation to include the Portneuf River country, Soda Springs, and the big Camas Prairie, lands in modern Idaho. Taghee died in 1871.

He said that by 1878, tensions between the United States and the tribes over unfulfilled promises led to war. At first this was led by the Bannock war chief Buffalo Horn. Bannock people are speakers of a Northern Paiute dialect, and they traveled hundreds of miles west from Fort Hall and Camas Prairie to gather alliances with other tribes. Buffalo Horn soon died in battle. The Bannock arrived at the Malheur Paiute Reservation, Oregon, where Chief Ehegande (a Shoshone word meaning Blanket-Owner, anglicized as Egan) agreed to lead the war. Chief Egan’s leadership in the Bannock war lasted through several battles, in which he received injuries by bullet wounds. He would later die when ambushed in a false negotiation with warriors of the Umatilla reservation. This contributed to the end of the Bannock War.

Reyes’ lineage includes Ehegande, her third-great-grandfather on her maternal side. Though the tribal wars were ultimately unsuccessful, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes combined and their warriors have worked to improve conditions on the reservation ever since. This includes her mother, Sheryl Lynn Slim—a former champion Fancy Shawl dancer—who is currently studying energy and water law to further assist her community. It is through her mother and maternal grandmother that she learned much of the Shoshone-Bannock languages and culture. Paternally, Shaylee descends from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. She experienced life in both the Snake River Plain and Rocky Mountains as well as the lakes and woodlands of Minnesota.

As a Shoshone-Bannock, she participated in powwows and sundance, and experienced ceremonial sweat lodge ceremonies that blend prayers and songs as a way to purify the body and strengthen the spirit. As an Anishinaabe, she participated in maple sugar camps, learned to build a canoe out of birch tree, and harvested wild rice by hand the traditional way using only two persons in a canoe and “knocking sticks” to gently knock the ripened grains into the canoe.

“These are some of the beautiful aspects of life on our reservation,” she said. “But, then there’s a darker side of poverty, addiction, corruption and school drop outs. Everyone says the way to prosperity is through education, however, when you live in an environment that lacks financial and educational resources, it’s a difficult way to achieve your dreams. There’s no internet. I have better internet in a deployed environment than I do on my own rez.”

Brown explained how prosperity is actually built on property rights, but because of current policies carried out through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the majority of individual Indian peoples’ lands are held as Indian allotments in trust by the United States, not as fee-simple title. These became subject to heirship problems and land could be owned in fractionated interests, some parcels having dozens or even hundreds of owners and creating problems. Many cannot navigate through these problems and obstructions to build new homes.

“If you try to pull a title, it will say United States Government. No bank is going to secure a home loan on land you don’t own. That’s why you see so many trailers,” she said. She was lucky though that her grandmother, Madelyn Punkin, a master beadworker and seamstress who survived the government’s assimilation policies of the boarding school era and the Indian relocation program, where Indians were transported to urban areas to make a living by themselves without tribal ties and assistance. Madelyn was one of the fortunate ones, managing to return from relocation in California and inherited some her family’s lands on the Fort Hall Reservation without fractionated interest, and through her excellent credit and hard work built the family home. The home where Reyes would live with her mother until she went to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and later joined the military in 2007.

Reyes’ military service has deep roots in her tribal heritage. Fort Hall was the first to be named a “Purple Heart Reservation” in 2015, paying tribute to all those who are wounded while serving in the military. American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the United States’ Armed forces at five times the national average. For a community that has persevered through decades of challenges, American Indians and Alaska Natives have remained steadfast in their defense of the United States as members of the Armed Forces for centuries.

And, it was through her paternal grandfather Ira Brown and father, Tim Brown—both Air Force veterans—that she experienced life off the reservation early in her childhood as part of the military community. Her father is a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa, also known as Ojibwe or Anishinaabe. He is a champion horse racer, riding bareback around a track at full gallop, then dismounting and leaping to another waiting horse for another lap in what’s called an Indian Relay an ancient sport, originating and popularized by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Brown also breeds horses and participates in longer endurance horse rides reaching 50 miles or more.

“It’s a dangerous sport that requires so much skill,” said Reyes. “I’m really proud of him for his athleticism and for his example of service to our family and country.” She said she’s equally proud of her brothers who are artists, liaisons for the tribe, and college students, and that she hopes to bring back the medical skills she learns in the military to the reservation.

Reyes spent three years on a medical surgical floor and three years as a hemodialysis technician at Travis AFB until she received orders to Alaska in 2013. She spent six years there working in intensive care, family health, and labor and delivery units. She taught CPR, EMT, and Tactical Combat Casualty Care courses, and upon hearing of openings in the aeromedical evacuation career field, she applied and was accepted into this “next level of expertise.”

This is what brought her to the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, where she has earned her status as an AE Flight Instructor. There are only four active duty AE squadrons and only two in the continental U.S. On top of being medical professionals, these elite Aeromedical Evacuation crew members must pass water survival, SERE, as well as qualify for their wings at the Flight Training Unit at Wright-Patterson AFB. They provide care in the air anywhere and at any time, specializing in transforming aircraft into a flying hospital within hours.

“This is such an exciting opportunity for me, but it requires the full support of my family due to the demanding flying and deployment schedules. I love this job, but it’s demanding. I deployed twice last year and supported multiple missions stateside. Soon after my deployment, my husband deployed for six months and he just returned yesterday…”

She said her husband, Tech. Sgt. Nicky Reyes, 375th Medical Operations Squadron, was fully supportive of this career move because he understands how much it means for her to serve her country in this capacity. All the medical and leadership skills gained over both their careers has laid a strong foundation for them to help their native communities after retirement. Nicky Reyes is from a small tribe in California called Qahuilla, and he also understands there is lots of work that needs to be done to overcome the medical and health disparities in the native American community.

“We’ve already seen simple ways that we can do better to help our community, and all the skills we’ve learned in the military will easily apply to our goals—from disease prevention to even setting up our [Shoshone-Bannock Tribes] own hemodialysis clinic. Native Americans have the highest rate of diabetes, and diabetes is the No. 1 cause of kidney failure. The tribes could save millions if we could prevent it all together or at least have the capacity to take care of our own.”

Together since basic training and technical school, they’re raising three children—Isaac, 12 who was born while Nicky was deployed to Afghanistan, Aaliah, 10, and Callie, 5, who was recently adopted.

“We’ve been a great team these past 15 years, and we look forward to creating a beautiful future for our children. They’re our own little band of warriors,” she said, “because we’re still learning how best to come together as a family of five plus very busy work schedules. It’s an adventure for sure.”

That adventure will carry her through plans for a master’s degree in healthcare management with the goal of managing the Indian Healthcare Services clinic in Ft. Hall and incorporating her long held military values of integrity, excellence, and service.