From Towaoc to Washington

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Native American Women Warriors, based in Pueblo, Colorado, perform while passing the presidential box and the White House during the inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. Michela Alire is marching with the black POW flag.

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

For Michela Alire, secretary for Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Gary Hayes, the last week can best be described as a whirlwind.

Alire, 47, left the humble confines of Towaoc - population 1,087 - and suddenly found herself surrounded by throngs of cheering onlookers at President Obama's inauguration parade Monday.

Alire and nine others marched in the parade as part of Native American Women Warriors, formed several years ago for female veterans of Native American descent. Its 36 members travel the country to participate in Color Guard ceremonies and raise awareness of an overlooked subgroup.

Founder Mitchelene Bigman is a 22-year retired Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq. She created the Pueblo-based group to "help bring recognition to these women," said Alire, who joined NAWW in November after an invitation from Bigman.

"We want to honor the ones who served in the past, who are currently serving, and any future Native American woman who wants to be part of the military," she added.

Being selected for the inaugural parade made NAWW part of an elite company. Of the roughly 2,800 groups that applied, only 60 made the final cut. Ballet Folklórico de la Raza, a Mexican heritage dance troupe out of Colorado Springs, also represented the Centennial State.

Diversity was on full display in the prestigious parade.

"We followed the (Lesbian and Gay Band Association of St. Louis), and behind us was a high school band from Arkansas," Alire said.

With musical instruments echoing and loudspeakers bellowing out the names of participating groups, decibel volumes were off the chart. The noise made it difficult for Alire and her comrades to hear Julia Kelly, a former Army drill sergeant who was "calling cadence" and trying to keep them in sync. "We were listening hard and hoping she wouldn't lose her voice."

Alire has done Color Guard ceremonies before, but this one was special.

"I'd never done anything of this magnitude and with all women," she said.

An estimated 800,000 plus people - more than 30 times the population of Montezuma County - crowded onto the National Mall to watch Obama take the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts. Many of those spectators lined Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and U.S. Capitol to watch the parade.

Alire called the raucous atmosphere, far removed from quiet Towaoc, "overwhelming."

"We were excited. People went nuts, screaming and yelling. There were Marines along the route. You could hear their heels click together as they saluted the flag," she said. "The roar of the crowd was unreal."

While in Washington, NAWW also took part in the American Indian Society Inaugural Ball and Powwow.

"I've never posed for so many pictures or smiled so much," Alire said.

During the festivities, the women wore jingle dresses made of blue fabric and adorned with 200 tiny metal cones. Alire said the dress signifies healing.

Putting the ensemble together was a team effort that took five days. Several friends helped sew the dress. Another made moccasins. Her cousin made a decorative belt. Someone's daughter gave a beaded medallion covered in a red rose pattern. Spiritual leader Terry Knight presented Alire with eagle feathers, and natural resources director Jerald Peabody supplied traditional face paint to wear near her eyes.

The blending of Native regalia with precise, military-style marching drew some attention, and Alire said countless people stopped her to inquire what the group was. They were even featured on a CBS News segment.

The other nine women came from tribes scattered across the country - North Carolina, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio. Even so, Alire said they formed an instant bond.

"We all got along," she said. "There was camaraderie because of common backgrounds and experiences."

Some of those experiences come from the battle for legitimacy, as minorities both in gender and race.

"You have to work harder (to prove yourself) as a Native American woman. Even today women in the military can struggle with acceptance. It may have gotten a little better since my time, but it's still a factor," she said.

Alire's own stint in the service was fairly brief.

Near the end of high school in Buena Vista in 1984, she felt unprepared and unmotivated for college. So she took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test to see if her skills fit with the military. They did.

After basic and advanced individual training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Alire spent a year as an administrative specialist at Alabama's Fort Rucker. Later she was stationed at the Army garrison in Giessen, West Germany. She returned to civilian life in Oct. 1986 and has lived in Towaoc for the last 19 years.

The pageantry of inauguration weekend was not something she'll soon forget.

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