Chief John Winneshiek recognized for his military service with ceremony

By Ken Luchterhand

     The honor and acknowledgment was a long time in coming.
     Thirty-three years after his passing, Chief John Winneshiek was recognized for his military service to the country and his people.
     A flag presentation ceremony was held in his honor on Friday, May 24, at the District 1 Community Center.         The Andrew Blackhawk Post 129 Auxiliary provided a meal, along with potluck from friends and relatives. Jon Greendeer served as emcee of the event.
     His contributions to his country and to his people were not known by most people because he never talked about his military service, not even to his own children.
     “When he died in 1986, our mother told us that he had served, which we didn’t know,” said Sandra Winneshiek, daughter of Chief John Winneshiek.  “He never talked about that part of his life. He never really talked about himself. He was humble and quiet.”
     During the ceremony, Greendeer talked about Winneshiek’s role as a warrior and how that role is important to the Ho-Chunk people.
     “The gathering is bittersweet. I knew this would be something significant. It means something to country, community and our culture,” Greendeer said. “Our whole way of life is around warriors and what they have done. They go overseas and all around the world to protect us.”
     Greendeer said that when warriors go to war, they say their spirits go to play with the spirits of their friends.
     “It’s the business of a warrior,” Greendeer said. “When you make that decision to serve, you don’t just go into the military and come back to the way you were before. You are Indentured for life – to defend our communities. You are asked to do a lot of things. It can be a blessing and it can be a burden.”
     Greendeer said it is considered an honor to serve the people as a warrior.
     Ralph Snake, a nephew of John Winneshiek, provided a prayer. Before doing so, he offered the story of his childhood and his connection with his uncle.
     He told the story of how, when they were children, Ralph and brothers were taken away and put into foster homes in the 1950s, trying to disseminate the tribes. Consequently, he didn’t grow up with the cultural knowledge of his Ho-Chunk heritage.
     After his military service, he came back to the Black River Falls area and he and his buddies would ride around in a car, telling stories and teasing each other. They decided they were going to move to Hawaii.
     Then, his attitude changed as he talked to elders and he realized his connection to the Ho-Chunk people and what it meant to him.
     When Ralph was working in the Bingo Hall, he was in charge of bingo packets. Winneshiek told him to sit down, told him at the time when Ralph was taken away that he tried to keep them nearby. He said he prayed for him and the boys that they would be in good health, and fed and praying they would come home. 
     “Family and friends – that’s what it’s all about,” Ralph said.
     Ron Kind presented a United States flag that flew over the Capital for John Winneshiek.
     He spoke of the courage of the men who came ashore on D-Day and the role the Code Talkers had in helping defeat the Germans in World War II.
     Fletcher Collins spoke, telling how he remembers the teasing, the companionship, and love of his grandfather.
     “He had a number of strokes, so he talked to us in his own way. He brought us into our way of life,” Fletcher said. “We honor him by living that way of life. He loved his own Ho-Chunk people – tough way to live. It didn’t hit me until I was older that that’s the way it should be.”
     Traditional Chief Clayton Winneshiek spoke. He said John tried to live the ways of Ho-Chunk people. Today, there are so many distractions in our lives that try to take away the way we should be. Love honor respect all in own love song.
     “That’s how father John lived his life.”
     He remembers Jaaji John when he was a little boy. He would spend a week with him in Rapids once a year. Since Clayton’s home was so remote, he marveled at the vehicles traveling past the house. He would sit up at night to watch the cars passing on Highway 13.
     John’s daughter Sandra helped to make the flag presentation ceremony possible. She said she didn’t know what to do at the time, but with her experience working in veterans affairs, having been the Ho-Chunk Nation Veterans Service officer and worked for the U.S. Veterans Administration, she found out what she could do for her father. She pursued getting him a flag and being recognized as a veteran.
     “We did not find any records and, if we had records, they were long destroyed when the family home was torn down. So, I’m sure there were records but they were buried in the rubbish of the old house. The old house was torn down and the basement was buried. His DD 214 (discharge record) might have been in that pile. On the national level, there was a fire in 1973 that destroyed servicemen’s records. We believe his records were in that fire,” Sandra said.
     On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo. destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files. The affected record collections included U.S. Army personnel discharged November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960.
     “That’s why we couldn’t get a date. But we believe we salvaged some ribbons that were found in the basement,” she said.
     In mid-October, Sandra began an effort to get his service recognized. Ron Kind’s office, in particular, staff member Mark Aumann, worked on it, she said. The process didn’t take long, but it took longer to get a date for Rep. Kind to be available for the presentation. Sandra is pleased that the ceremony went flawlessly.
     “It went really well because for a veteran, to a veteran, that is what was important – that flag. If you’re a vet and that’s a flag given to another vet, that’s really important,” she said. “I thought it went really well.” 
     The flag presentation ceremony brought closure to his family.
     “I wanted him recognized as a veteran. He was due that - and getting the flag. What I didn’t expect was getting the flag that was flown over the Capital in recognition of his military service as well as serving the Ho-Chunk people as the hereditary chief. I didn’t expect that little flag - that’s why he has two flags: the standard coffin-size flag was presented by Donald Greengrass vice commander of the Andrew Blackhawk American Legion Post 129, and then the little flag from Congressman Ron Kind.”
     John’s son George served in the Bay of Pigs as a Marine and his daughter Sandra served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era. Both received honorable discharges.
     “Our dad took a lot of pride in our serving. He was real proud of us in that we served. He ended up getting out of the Army to take care of his siblings,” Sandra said. “My mom would always say that Dad had a hard life - and he did. He took care of a lot of people on a small paycheck.”