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Ira Hayes helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima. Here's how his tribe celebrates the complicated hero

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

On Saturday, the Gila River Indian Community’s capital of Sacaton, south of Phoenix, was filled with lots of greetings, candy being tossed into crowds and military flyovers.

They celebrated the life and legacy of Ira Hamilton Hayes, who’s remembered as a complicated hero. He’s perhaps best known for being one of six Marines captured in the iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” during World War II.

Hundreds of paradegoers crammed in, parking cars along the nearly milelong route to watch marchers and floats making their way to the Mathew B. Juan-Ira H. Hayes Veterans Memorial Park.

“Normally, wind is blowing, or it’s raining, but this year is a fine day,” said Bill Dixon, post commander for the Ira H. Hayes American Legion Post 84.

The Sacaton-based post has been in charge of organizing this annual gathering, but COVID postponed plans for the past three years.

More than 8,100 positive cases — and roughly 200 deaths — were reported in the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, according to tallies last updated in May 2023.

Their reservation is home to more than 14,000 residents.

This year, however, the parade and ceremony returned, drawing participants and spectators from all around Arizona — Birdsprings. Blackwater. Tolani Lake. Tsaile. Phoenix. Scottsdale. Coolidge. Apache Junction.

Among them, Navajo, O’odham and San Carlos Apache veterans marched in honor of Hayes. And a mix of Native-led veteran and auxiliary organizations traveled to the Valley by way of Kansas, North Dakota, Montana and Washington, in a show of solidarity.

Some hailed from the Yakama Nation as well as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, among other tribal communities scattered across Indian Country.

More than 50 groups were present. Dixon shared that number used to be in the triple digits prior to the pandemic, admitting that “It has slowed down a little bit, but next year, it’ll probably improve again.”

GRIC Governor Stephen Roe Lewis agreed, but expressed he’s hopeful that this patriotic tradition will ultimately bounce back in full-strength.

“I know we haven’t had for a few years because of COVID, so I want to say to all of our Piipaash and O’odham veterans, veterans throughout Arizona and Indian Country, you honor us for coming back here, for coming home,” said Lewis. “This just kicks off the rest of the day, full of celebrations and honorings.”

“I just want to wish you blessings on a beautiful day,” added Lieutenant Gov. Regina Antone, “to you and your families, and safe travels wherever you go.”

Students from the St. Peter Indian Mission Catholic School in Bapchule — where the Hayes family settled — sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the English and O’odham languages after the parade ended.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps major Urban Giff gave the keynote address during a ceremony, standing on a stage underneath a massive mural depicting Hayes’ heroic act that brought national attention, not only to himself, but also his home.

“We didn’t know about the Marine Corps on this reservation until Ira Hayes showed us what it was,” said Giff. “What was it? It was a matter of serving, always we, us, not me, not I.”

Giff, also a former post commander, insisted that Hayes’ commitment was proven almost eight decades ago on the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific Theater.

“One of our members from this community served with his buddies, and they raised the flag on the mountain in Suribachi,” added Giff. “It showed the people that it was worth doing. And they were able to overcome the enemy that was there to do us harm.”

Tom Holm is a Cherokee professor emeritus of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. A Marine veteran from the Vietnam War himself, he’s also the author of a biography, “Ira Hayes: The Akimel O'odham Warrior, World War II, and the Price of Heroism.”

Despite his undeniable fame, Hayes had a difficult life, on and off the reservation.

Born in 1923, the eldest of six children, Hayes grew up in the aftermath of a four-decade-long famine that plagued their agricultural way of life, “ just a generation before his birth,” as Holm put it.

His Presbyterian family mainly relied on subsistence farming. Hayes spent much of his time picking cotton in irrigated fields while GRIC wasn’t able to actualize their water rights since access to the Gila River was cut off due to the construction of dams and upstream diversion structures during the late 19th century.

These projects benefited non-Native farmers, but wiped out tribal enterprise. Mass famine and starvation afflicted the Gila River Indian Community between 1880 and 1920.

Few job opportunities existed outside of agriculture. That, coupled with the loss of a once thriving cash crop industry, caused poverty to sweep across the reservation.

It also led to a rise in alcoholism.

All of these traumas, Holm explained, were carried by him, long before the war even began.

Hayes later attended the Phoenix Indian School, Arizona’s only non-reservation government-run boarding school, by the age of 17. It was a popular recruiting station for Native youths during the First World War.

Even his father, Joseph, served in World War I.

Less militarized and regimented by then, Hayes eventually left the Valley’s boarding school and briefly joined the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division, before he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

He underwent an intensive, seven-week basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, and later became a paratrooper. Hayes first saw action during the Battle of Bougainville, a deadly campaign for the Solomon Islands in Oceania that left more than 400 Marines dead and another 1,400-plus wounded.

“Bougainville was a terrible place to be,” said Holm. “And if anything, Iwo Jima was even worse.”

More than 26,000 American casualties were counted, including 6,800 dead during the 36-day assault on the small island in the Pacific Ocean.

Although Hayes helped raise the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi in late-February, the fighting ensued long after "Old Glory" waved freely until the island was finally captured by the Allies on March 26, 1945.

Yet Hayes was still a reluctant hero.

That iconic scene captured by Associated Press war photographer Joe Rosenthal suddenly spread around the nation. Newspapers reprinted it, and that image of American troops ascending a Japanese-occupied island, transformed into a powerful patriotic symbol four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But Hayes sought to keep his anonymity, trying to avoid being identified until his commanding officers found out and forced him to participate in the Seventh War Bond Drive to raise funds for the ongoing war effort. At the same, Holm believed that Hayes still struggled with the “social absorption of wartime trauma,” adding that he hadn’t had a chance to address what he’d seen during combat in the aftermath of Iwo Jima.

Hayes still traveled far and wide with his fellow flag raisers, but had been held to a different standard, especially when it came to his drinking out in public. He was eventually fired from the tour.

Less than 10 months later, Hayes was discharged with the rank of corporal in December 1945.

He still dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, getting arrested at bars, both in and out of the Valley. A federal law at the time prohibited the sale of alcohol to Native Americans between 1823 and 1953.

“Then because of his celebrity, I think that he got targeted quite a bit,” said Holm.

Racist stereotypes of Hayes emerged in news and popular media, tainting his public persona. They deemed him a “drunken Indian.” Holm described his post-war civilian life, “as a kind of Shakespearean tragedy — the flawed hero — the flawed character. The flaw that comes in with alcohol, which is a stereotype, and that leads to his demise.”

Hayes fell into an irrigation ditch and froze to death in the desert in 1955.

“In a way, I’m kinda amazed he made it to the age of 32, because that was a rough time on the reservation,” added Holm. “Granted, it was of hypothermia, that’s a really easy to succumb to out there.”

His untimely death inspired a folk song less than a decade later, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” originally written and performed by Peter La Farge in 1964.

“Ira Hayes, call him drunken Ira Hayes. He won’t answer anymore. Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian. Nor the Marine that went to war,” sang La Farge. “From the tribe of the Pima Indian, a proud and peaceful band, who farmed the Phoenix valley in Arizona land.”

But those lyrics were made popular by Johnny Cash.

“Then Ira started drinking hard. Jail often was his home. They let him raise the flag and lower it, like throw a dog a bone,” Cash sang. “Call him drunken Ira Hayes, but his land is still as dry. And his ghost is lyin’ thirsty in the ditch where Ira died.”

Even though he kept struggling, before his untimely death, for a decade following the Second World War, Holm shared, “I don’t think that he was shunned or abandoned or anything else. I didn’t find that at all. His celebrity in some ways was punished, but not by his people.”

In fact, Holm suggested Hayes, “was quite a good representative, I suppose, of that community, in that he tried to live his life with the understanding of service, and being in service to his people.”

With the 80th anniversary of the Iwo Jima flag raising coming next February, it’s another special occasion to remember, and showing that his legacy is still worth celebrating.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.