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Local Native American leader ‘Charlie’ Harjo dies of cancer at age 64

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 10, 2013, at 8:53 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 11, 2013, at 3:34 p.m.

Charles Anthony “Charlie” Harjo was a gentle warrior.

After serving two tours with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam, Mr. Harjo, of Chocktaw-Creek heritage, returned to Wichita in 1969 determined to take care of his family and people. For more than two decades, he served as a spokesman for the Native American community and was often the chairman of the Wichita Intertribal Warrior Society.

Mr. Harjo died Saturday at the VA Medical Center from cancer linked to exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used in the jungles of Vietnam during the war. He was 64.

Visitation will be from 1 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Culbertson-Smith Mortuary, 115 S. Seneca. Funeral service is at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the funeral home.

Mr. Harjo was born July 12, 1948, in Wichita and was a 1966 graduate of South High School. His father fought in World War II, his grandfather fought in World War I.

So, when he graduated from high school, it was natural for Mr. Harjo to join the U.S. Army. He served two tours with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. One ended when his eardrum burst from the concussion of a mortar shell fired next to him. The second ended when he was seriously wounded in a patrol ambush. He was the recipient of two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a National Defense Ribbon, a Vietnam Campaign Ribbon and a Campaign Infantryman's Badge.

When he returned from war, Mr. Harjo was often tormented by his memories in Vietnam. He would sleep on the floor between the couch and the wall with a bayonet at his side, until family members told him he should seek help. His daughter, Adrienne Nester of Coppell, Texas, remembers how one of her father’s great joys was playing ball. He was a natural athlete and played baseball and fast-pitch softball. Then, when he became a father, he would play ball with his children and later grandchildren.

“My dad loved all of us very much,” Nester said. “Vietnam always weighed heavily on his heart. He was both proud of his accomplishment and protection of our country but he also was living in torture. It weighed on him until the day he died. He never let us in to his pain. He always protected all of us to the very end.”

In the late 1980s, Mr. Harjo became actively involved with the Wichita Intertribal Warrior Society. In 1991, Mr. Harjo and several members of the warrior society created a traditional eagle staff – 6 to 8 feet long made from a cedar tree selected by tribal leaders and covered in eagle feathers. In the Native American society, the spirit of the eagle presided over hunters, war parties and battles. The society members took the staff to Washington, D.C., and placed it at the Vietnam War memorial. It now resides in the Smithsonian Institution.

It was not unusual for Mr. Harjo to make sure that families had food when times were bad or even take people into his home when storms hit and they were without power.

“Charlie had a respect for people,” said David Burditt, vice chairman of the Wichita Intertribal Warrior Society. “He was a fantastic listener and would sit and listen, before he’d speak. When he did speak, it came from the heart.”

In Vietnam and other wars, Mr. Harjo told a Wichita Eagle reporter in 1994, “whenever skin bled, it bled red.” Powwows, he said, were meant for all veterans and not just Native Americans. He was instrumental in creating and producing an annual veterans powwow hosted by the warrior society. He encouraged all veterans – male and female – to attend powwows.

“He was a true native warrior,” said friend Eugene “Louie” Stumbling Bear.

The Native American community has suffered a blow with Mr. Harjo’s death, said Lynn Byrd Stumbling Bear, Eugene’s wife, and board member of the Mid-America All-Indian Center.

“Charlie was a great part of the warrior’s society. That was his niche. But Charlie was also involved in the Indian Alcohol Treatment and part of the sweat lodge,” she said. “He did the most beautiful woodwork, making cedar boxes. Even in the times he was sick, even in those bad times, he never said a bad word about anybody. He just kept going”

Apache Jay Jaynesahkluah considered Mr. Harjo a father in the Native American way.

“He was my adopted dad,” Jay said. “When I came back from Iraq, he took me in – the way my dad, Moses Jay, took Charlie in after Vietnam. Charlie was the epitome of what a native man – a native soldier would be. He was a beacon for those Indians and non-Indians of what a person should be. He was a mentor, father, gentleman, soldier, friend and grandfather.”

Mr. Harjo is survived by his companion, Valerie Schneider, Hutchinson; daughter, Adrienne Nester, Coppell, Texas; sons, Charles Jarrod Harjo and Robert Harjo, both of Wichita; four grandchildren; and brothers, Henry Harjo, Edmond, Okla., and Sean Phinney, Wichita.

A memorial has been created in Mr. Harjo’s name with the Wichita Intertribal Warrior Society, 850 N. Wood, Wichita, KS 67212.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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