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Navajo Airman shares heritage with community

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kevin Sommer Giron
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- Today’s U.S. Air Force operates with a small, but highly skilled, work force. Less than one percent of the U.S. population volunteers to enlist or commission in the military. Statistics show 19.1 percent of those service members are women, and only 0.6 percent of all service members are Native American.

Senior Airman Letyraial Cunningham, 19th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering journeyman, connects her professional role with her Navajo background by sharing her heritage with those she serves with.

Raised on a reservation in the southeast region of Utah, Cunningham grew up in a traditional Navajo home with her grandmother.

“My grandmother taught me the Navajo language and the importance of being a strong-willed and independent woman,” Cunningham explained. “My parents were constantly working so I had to be the person to go get groceries, pay the bills and take care of my siblings.”

With steadfast guidance from her grandmother, Cunningham learned the importance of the Navajo traditions and morals that would keep her committed to her heritage throughout her life.

“My parents and grandmother were strict, they made sure I didn’t act irresponsibly and that helped me during basic training because I didn’t get noticed until the eighth week,” Cunningham said.

Among the many ceremonial traditions held by the Navajo people, pow-wows are one of the traditions Cunningham holds closest to her heart. The ceremony brings together members of her tribe and others to celebrate life, and is a great outlet for her to express herself through dance.

“When I was three years old, I told my uncle I wanted to be involved; so he and his wife made me an outfit, and from then I started (dancing) and haven’t stopped,” Cunningham said with a smile.

Tradition and spiritual belief run deep in the veins of those who hold them sacred. Each ceremony holds a special faith that speaks volumes to the culture being celebrated.

“We have a strong belief in all living things and the importance of having respect for oneself and others,” Cunningham said. “It’s reflected on me, especially now that I have a son. I want to make sure I pass those things on to him as well.”

Much like Air Force heritage and tradition, Cunningham’s Navajo heritage is highly valued by family – it’s what ensures cultural beliefs stay strong through generations. However, Cunningham doesn’t limit this knowledge to her Navajo family. Instead, she extends her teaching to those who wish to understand the Navajo culture.

"I think it is very important to have different cultures within the Air Force,” Cunningham said. “Having diversity brings the world alive. Different people make this world what it is today.” 

This desire to share her heritage with others has been a goal Cunningham has held since enlistmenting in the Air Force.

“I started by talking to my friends about who I am, how my tribe did things and how I grew up,” Cunningham said. “Over the years, I have expanded my outreach. Now I’m a part of the Native American Committee for Diversity Day, and every year I make a traditional Navajo dish at my squadron’s Native American luncheon.”

One of the main benefits of educating others about Native American culture and Navajo tradition is to help dispel stereotypes, and help others gain insight and appreciation for this ethnic group.

“When people meet Native Americans, I don’t want them having false assumptions,” Cunningham said. “Most tribes have different modernized lifestyles, so not all Native Americans live in a teepee, eat buffalo, wear buckskin or hunt.”

Working closely with the American Indian Center of Arkansas, Cunningham helps raise awareness of the Native American culture within the base and the local communities.

“Airman Cunningham is always ready to talk about her heritage and share her ideas about certain aspect of life,” said Master Sgt. Mildred Nordman, 19th Civil Engineering Squadron superintendent. “I have learned quite a bit from her in the short time I have known her, and I don’t plan on stopping.”

Bringing her culture everywhere she goes, Cunningham is a constant reminder of the long and rich history of the Native American people still thriving in the U.S. to this day.