An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Home : Media : News : Article View
NEWS | Dec. 14, 2023

NSWCPD Celebrates National Native American Heritage Month with Toyce Holmes, Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma Muscogee Nation

By Gary Ell

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) hosted its annual National Native American Heritage Month Observance featuring Toyce Holmes on Nov. 30, 2023.

Emceed by NSWCPD Special Emphasis Program Manager/Equal Employment Office (EEO) Counselor Edwin Rosa, the event featured Holmes discussing her family’s history and Native/Indigenous heritage.

During his command welcome address, NSWCPD Technical Director, Nigel C. Thijs, SES, took a moment to acknowledge this year’s theme, “Tribal Nations Soaring to New Heights.”

“This month, we focus on the contributions and experiences of American Indians and Alaska Natives. I am sure you have heard many times about the Navajo Code Breakers, who were instrumental in the success of the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater and critical to the infamous victory at Iwo Jima. What I am excited about, however, is the expansion of recognition for
American Indians and Alaska Natives beyond that mainstream story,” Thijs said.

The technical director noted that this year alone, the Navy christened USNS Navajo, the first-in-class towing, rescue, and salvage ship. In addition, the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) named future vessels after Billy Frank, Jr., a military policeman in the Marine Corps, and Solomon Atkinson, Alaska Native and Navy SEAL. Most recently, SECNAV named a future DDG 51-class guided missile destroyer after the first American Indian Medal of Honor recipient, Ernest Evans, which was important not only because of his contributions, but because the naming is for a combat, not support, vessel.

“Introducing these names to the Nation will further drive acceptance, offer teaching and learning opportunities, and build a legacy,” Thijs said.

“These celebrations of diverse people and recognition of their contributions to our Navy throughout the year are an essential step towards our North Star of a diverse and inclusive Navy organization, reflective of the Nation it protects,” Thijs continued, “We come together, Sailors and civilians alike, to bring our unique talents and perspectives formed by our life experiences to advance the Department of the Navy's priorities to Strengthen Maritime Dominance, Build a Culture of Warfighting Excellence, and Enhance Strategic Partnerships.”

Thijs then officially introduced Holmes, who is originally from Oklahoma and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She earned a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Texas at Arlington and a Master of Education with a concentration in clinical and school counseling from Louisiana State University. Her career spans over 20 years of working with families, students, and communities in both secondary and higher education settings and social welfare at the city and state levels. She has been at the University of Pennsylvania since 2018 and is currently the Assistant Director of Penn Spectrum Programs, overseeing identity-based alum communities. Toyce is an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe, which is federally recognized, and has a rich family history with a connection to military service.

Holmes acknowledged that she now lives and works in Lenapehoking (translated as ‘homelands of the Lenape’). During her presentation, although she focused on the experiences of her life and family, sharing the artwork of her family of talented artisans, she also delved into history.

“In June of next year, it will be a hundred years that native folks will be recognized as citizens,” Holmes said.

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was an Act of the United States Congress that granted U.S. citizenship to the indigenous peoples of the United States. While the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution defines a citizen as any persons born in the United States and subject to its laws and jurisdiction, the amendment had previously been interpreted by the courts not to apply to Native peoples.

“My grandfather was born before the 1924 Act was passed,” Holmes said, adding, “We think that hundred years ago was so long ago, but it’s not. I have this connection to him – my grandfather wasn’t even considered a citizen. Because so many native folks served in World War I, many were given citizenship following the war, even though the act didn’t grant the right to all native folks until 1924.”

Many American Indians and Alaska Natives serving today in the military have a deep patriotism for protecting and serving their homeland.

“Native people truly love this land. Native American veterans will often say that they went to war, not for monetary gain, but to protect our sacred mountains, protect the water, protect the animals here, and of course to protect the people here. This is our home,” she said, adding, “When I heard my grandfathers talk, it made me so proud and warmed my heart.”

Native Americans and Alaska Natives have served honorably in the U.S. Navy for more than 200 years. Holmes pointed out that during both world wars Code Talkers were used. The Choctaw soldiers were the most documented group of the World War I Code Talkers, and during World War II the legendary contributions of the Navaho Code Talkers were instrumental to winning the war.

Both of her grandfathers served in World War II. Her maternal grandfather, Adam Autaubo (1926-2017) from the Kiowa Tribe, served in the European Theater, and her paternal grandfather, Tillier Wesley Sr. (1920-1991) from the Muscogee Tribe, served in the Pacific Theater.

Holmes also discussed the sobering history of Indian Boarding Schools and Christian Missionaries, as well as provided statistics of education today within native communities.

While talking about education, she shared her opinions about the usage of Native American mascots for sports teams.

“There are so many things wrong with using native mascots in popular culture. I hate it,” Holmes said, adding, “It comes down to what people see in the media and what they learn about native people. Using Native mascots is grotesque and it’s bothersome and hurtful.”

Holmes then detailed her personal experience with such mascots.

“I went to a high school in Texas and our sports team were the Indians. As an athlete, I hated going to the pep-rally. They would have crazy characters running up and down the field in headdresses and making sounds with their hands over their mouths,” Holmes said. “It was degrading and hurt my self-esteem. It put a target on my back, and I was bullied because of the mascot. I was called a Squaw, Pocahontas, etc. Mascots do not help. This did not honor me.”

Holmes highlighted the careers of many famous Native American people and how native people are contributing in education, art, literature, government, sports, science, and technology. She also noted how Native Americans from the past and present have brought prosperity and how their diverse cultures and communities continue to thrive and lead us forward.

“Learn the stories of your family, the stories of your grandparents and ancestors. It will give you a heightened perspective or a feeling of where you come from and where you exist in the world today,” Holmes said as her takeaway message

In his closing remarks, Robert Turner, the deputy director of NSWCPD’s EEO, Diversity and Inclusion Office thanked Holmes, saying, “Native Americans have made countless contributions to the United States Armed Forces and our country. Fifteen thousand Native Americans volunteered to fight in World War I despite being ineligible for the draft.”

Turner stated that 44,000 Native Americans served our Nation during World War II, including 1,910 in the Navy and 874 in the Marines.

“And let’s not forget the aforementioned Code Talkers who were instrumental in the Allies winning both wars, as Holmes pointed out in her presentation,” Turner said, adding, “The indigenous peoples sense of duty to their Nation remained constant as more than 42,000 served during the Vietnam War.”

NSWCPD employs approximately 2,800 civilian engineers, scientists, technicians, and support personnel. The NSWCPD team does the research and development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, and in-service and logistics engineering for the non-nuclear machinery, ship machinery systems, and related equipment and material for Navy surface ships and submarines. NSWCPD is also the lead organization providing cybersecurity for all ship systems.