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Tribal Wings, Embracing Heritage in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Tallon Bratton
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

In the vast landscapes of Gallup, New Mexico, Darrell Charlee’s journey began, shaped by his Navajo culture. Born into a community deeply rooted in tradition, Charlee, a Tech. Sgt. from the Kirtland Air Force Inspection Agency, found himself straddling the delicate line between his cultural heritage and the call to serve his country.

Growing up, the elders in Charlee's community honored long hair, a symbol of cultural pride and wisdom. For him, embracing this tradition became a personal journey, one that mirrored the values of balance and harmony deeply ingrained in Navajo beliefs.

Charlee's path led him to the Air Force, where he became part of an initiative called INET—Indigenous Nations Equality Team. As a spokesperson for the Navajo people, Charlee embarked on a mission to integrate more Native American values into military life. His efforts ranged from securing religious accommodations for growing out hair to advocating for the inclusion of Native American regalia in military ceremonies.

"Joining the Air Force gave me opportunities to travel the world, becoming an ambassador not only for the military, but also for the First Nations and American Native Americans," Charlee explained.

In places like Poland, he found himself immersed in conversations that transcended cultural boundaries. His unique background allowed him to break down stereotypes and share the stories of Navajo traditions.

Charlee's experiences abroad weren't just about showcasing his culture; they were opportunities to learn from others. In a local gym in Poland, practicing jiu jitsu, he discovered a shared interest that became a gateway to deeper conversations.

"I saw people drawing dream catchers and used that as a segue to share the significance of these symbols in Navajo culture," Charlee recounted.

As he continued his journey, Charlee faced the challenge of explaining the diversity among Native American tribes to those unfamiliar with their intricate differences.

"There are over 500 tribes in the United States, and they all have different ideas, beliefs and languages," he shared.

 Educating others became a crucial aspect of his mission, a dialogue that aimed to grow understanding and get rid of any misconceptions.

Charlee's passion extended beyond the Air Force. As part of a historic movement, he addressed over 700 recruiters, aiming to reshape the narrative for Native Americans interested in military service.

"We're making headway," he emphasized, highlighting the strides made to preserve cultural identity while breaking down barriers that once hindered recruitment.

For Charlee, the journey isn't just about personal growth; it's about paving the way for future generations.

"What I appreciate most is the effort to keep our cultural identity, while still serving our country," he reflected.

In his eyes, the balance between tradition and progress is not just a personal struggle, but a collective effort, a journey where honoring the past becomes the key to a more inclusive future.