Scores of bikers from the Navajo-Hopi Honor Riders rumbled into Towaoc last week to pay tribute to Ute Mountain Ute military veterans.
With a Bureau of Indian Affairs police escort, the motorcyclists ended a four-day journey across the Southwest in Towaoc on Thursday, May 14. It was the first time for the Navajo and Hopi bikers to include the Ute Mountain Ute in its annual rally, said co-founder Larry Begay.
“It’s an honor to be here,” said Begay.
With gusty winds and bolts of lightning, the near hour-long ceremony started with a drum circle and flag raising at Veteran’s Park. A stone memorial with the names of 72 Ute Mountain Ute service members stands in the center of the park.
“We’re here to honor our veterans,” said Ute Mountain Ute Councilwoman DeAnne House. “We’re here to honor them, and the freedom they helped to give us today.”
House added that she was proud to know that members from different tribes could unite as one to honor the sacrifices of veterans and their families.
“We thank the Navajo and Hopi Honor Riders for what they stand for on behalf of the Native people,” said House, who hand-delivered a metal tribal pin to each biker. “When you ride, you take us with you.”
Taking part in the actual ride, Ute Mountain Ute tribal president Manuel Heart also called attention to the sacrifices that Native veterans have made for the freedoms that all too often are taken for granted.
“We as Natives are the most decorated veterans,” said Hart. “So thank you for honoring us here today.”
The journey revved up from Lupton, Ariz., early last week. During the trek, riders stopped to honor a dozen fellow tribesmen and women that have been killed in action, including Army PFC Specialist Lori Piestewa.
“Lori was the first Native American woman in history to die in combat,” said Begay.
Started 12 years ago, the memorial ride was initially launched to commemorate Piestewa, who died in Iraq on March 23, 2003. Awarded both the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal, the 23-year-old Hopi woman was a single mother to two toddlers.
“We ride to visit our Gold Star mothers,” added Begay. “Our primary focus is to comfort them, and let them know that they aren’t forgotten.”
Serving in every foreign conflict since World War II, no Ute Mountain Ute veteran has ever died in a combat operation, according to Terry Knight, Sr.