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Native American Heritage Month: Michelle Charlie, Navajo (Dine)

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

Shiprock, New Mexico, may be best known as a movie location for feature films due to its striking landscapes of high desert plateaus punctuated by a massive volcanic formation that gave this town its name.

This formation was once accessible to eager rock climbers, but due to safety issues is now forbidden.  It’s located on the Navajo Indian reservation where Michelle Charlie, 435th Supply Chain Operations Squadron, grew up. 

To her, the area is also known for its crops of corn and squash, and livestock farms raising sheep and goat. The area, she said, is plain and brown, except for the surrounding mountains, “which are pretty.” The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, and encompasses the “Four Corners Region” of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. 

She spent her early years as one of four siblings—one has since passed—hunting, playing baseball, running, bull riding, and learning the traditions of her elders. A self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl,” she takes after him in many ways.   

“My father, Calvin, is a hard worker and can fix anything,” she said. “He took care of the family by working at the Arizona power plant, and taught me about the Native American Church, which is a faith tradition that I still observe today. He was drafted into the infantry during Vietnam, and though he didn’t talk about it much, it gave me a sense of direction to also serve in the military.”

When considering which branch to join, she decided upon the Air Force since they would not make her cut her long, knee-length hair.  So, at 17, she enlisted in the Air Force’s Delayed Entry Program, got her driver’s license and became a supply troop. The Air Force also approved a religious accommodation for the periodic use of peyote, a hallucinogenic used in rituals to enable individuals the ability to “commune with Mother Earth and Heavenly Father, our creator, in contemplation and vision, and to receive from them spiritual power, guidance, reproof and healing.”

Joining the Air Force was a big transition for her, leaving her isolated lifestyle and small family community for the unknown.  But soon she found a whole new tribe in her fellow trainees. Several friends from basic training and technical school were assigned with her to Yokota, Japan, which made her feel less alone.  From there she was stationed in Guam and then to Holloman Air Force Base back in New Mexico where she got to reconnect with her family again. She served a special duty assignment at Lackland AFB, Texas, as a Military Training Instructor before being assigned here in 2006.  She retired in 2016 after serving 20 years.

She moved to San Antonio, Texas for a change of pace, and while there, she met her partner, Stephanie, and helped to take care of her toddler son, Tobias, and black lab, Luna. She is now back with her Air Force family, what she considers her second tribe here at Scott AFB from five years ago. Now in her civilian capacity, she serves as a supply specialist supporting all requirements for Pacific Air Forces. According to her section supervisor, Rebecca Paintiff, Michelle inspires and trains assigned personnel on best practices for stock fund management supporting Air Force bases across the globe.

“We're thrilled the opportunity arose to have Michelle back in our work center. She has this amazingly compassionate personality for people, and her job that seems to inspire others to do their best always and to not be afraid to ask for help. Her approach to situations reminds me that our work center is a family, not one of us is alone; together we can positively get through anything, on the job or in our personal lives.”

Michelle said she’s proud to represent the Navajo people and enjoys working with the large veteran communities back home. She enjoys answering questions about her heritage and wants to bring attention to issues that affect the community such as missing women crimes, and water and food sourcing problems for the reservation. 

For now, she keeps a quote from her father treasured in her heart: “Good blessings from Mother Earth and Heavenly Father Creator, happy journey and take care of yourself each and every day. My dad always started everything with this blessing/quote, whether it was first thing in the morning walking out the door, prayers, achievements, or salutations, and it’s just a reminder of what I need to be thankful for.”