Feature Stories

NEWS | Nov. 1, 2021

Army watercraft engineer reflects on his Native American heritage

By Sgt. 1st Class Mary Katzenberger 1st Theater Sustainment Command

A Soldier with the Nuumu (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone) people, deployed here with the 401st Army Field Support Battalion, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, reflected on his cultural and military roots for this year’s Native American Heritage observance.

“My mom, she’s very traditional—she attends all the powwows, she makes all the regalia, she always tried getting us involved in the ceremonies, the sweat lodges, the powwows, just anything and everything,” said Sgt. 1st Class James R. Redner. “Of course me, I took the Army route.”

Redner, who serves as an Army watercraft engineer, or 88L, is also part Navajo. The Soldier hails from Bishop, California, a small city located on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the area where his ancestors settled following the period of the California Gold Rush.

“There was a big old push to get land and, of course, Native Americans were on that land, so a lot of them got hunted and killed or killed for sport,” Redner said of his ancestors.

As a result of the forced upheavals and violence of the period, the sergeant first class said much of his cultural heritage has been lost to history.

“As time moved forward we lost a lot of the language,” he said. “When I left home they were rebuilding the language program to try to capture and gather whatever language and traditions people remember, [to] capture it before it’s all gone.”

Redner said a lot of people of his generation and younger are moving away from home, like he did to enlist in the Army in 2004. The Soldier said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his mother, grandmother, grandfather, his uncles, and his brother, who all served “in one way, shape or form” in the Marine Corps or the Army.

“It’s the ‘quote on quote’ modern warrior in a way, for the young man to not so much stay at home anymore but to go out and do something to help protect and serve the community, while [he’s] young, strong and able,” Redner said. “In the past that’s what young men did, they left and then they came back to take care of the community.”

The sergeant first class said he is proud that a higher percentage of Native Americans serve in the military than that of any other ethnic group in the U.S. And, he is proud of his mother, Charlene, for the work she does at his tribe’s cultural center to help preserve history and teach young children in his community about their rich heritage.

Redner said he learned early on at basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, that the Army is its own type of community that is also steeped in tradition.

“Going from a small community to a large population of Soldiers away from home , from all types of different backgrounds—from Puerto Rico, from overseas, from the Midwest and the East Coast—all coming together and trying to figure out life together, how to live the Army way, was interesting,” the sergeant first class said.

As a watercraft engineer, Redner has served all over the world in his 17-year career. He has sailed to Central America, Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and here in the Middle East.

The sergeant first class first worked here between 2008 and 2009, when he was part of a boat crew whose mission it was to do port operations to move cargo from here to the United Arab Emirates, to Bahrain, “to anywhere and everywhere.”

Redner said as he looks back over his career, he sees nothing but wins.

“Finding out what it is like to work in a watercraft—how small it is and how unique of a puzzle piece it is—and being able to work on the vessels themselves, being a part of that small, tight knit crew that works on board, and building those relationships and memories … each mission, each crew is kind of a highlight in itself,” he said.

The sergeant first class said the Native American observance is important, because it gives him and other Native Americans the chance to educate people about where he comes from.

“Not too many people really know there’s tribes in California besides the southern tribes, the ones with the casinos,” he said. “It’s a reminder that, ‘hey, we’re still here.’ There’s not too many places I’ve been that have more than one or two Native American there, usually at my duty stations I’m the only one in the unit.”