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NEWS | Nov. 14, 2014

Sweetgrass and chevrons: Langley senior NCO embraces Native American heritage, Air Force family

By Staff Sgt. Jason J. Brown 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

On any given day, patrons entering Langley Air Force Base's Shellbank Fitness Center are greeted by the radiant smile and warm personality of the manager, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. April Donnelly.

That welcoming kindness, she said, stems from her upbringing in the fraternal construct of America's Native American community.

Donnelly, who is half-Eastern Cherokee, grew up practicing tribal traditions with her family. As a child, she spent much of her time travelling with family as they attended pow-wows across the country and participated in tribal dance competitions.

"We spent a lot of our weekends traveling state-to-state for dancing competitions. The dance I did is the 'Women's Fancy Shawl Dance,' which was one of the faster dances," she said, gesturing fluidly with her hands. "It resembles a butterfly in motion. It's hard to explain, but it is beautiful."

Donnelly, a North Carolina native, embraced dancing not only as a reflection of her heritage, but for its social benefits. Even at the tender age of 9, Donnelly loved to meet members from other Native American tribes throughout the nation. She lovingly referred to them as "extended family."

"I'm most proud of the importance of family. We're all so close and take care of each other," she said. "I love meeting new people from different tribes, and comparing and embracing each other's beliefs and customs. You really take them all in as your family."

She fondly recalled the richness in her family's native culture and in the communal compassion of her parents, who adopted several children from other tribes.

"We had a blended family because my parents took in a lot of kids from everywhere," Donnelly explained. "My adopted brother is Navajo, and we often danced with Lakota Siouxs."

Her strong sense of family draws close parallels to how she feels about her other family - the "Air Force family," she said.

"[The Native American community] is remarkably like the Air Force. Moving from base to base is a lot like traveling from pow-wow to pow-wow; you meet a stranger, but it doesn't feel that way - it feels like family," Donnelly said.

She credited her childhood experiences at pow-wows as one of her biggest influences in becoming an American Airman.

"One of the first things they do at the pow-wows is the "Veteran's Dance." I remember sitting and watching them dance, and seeing the tribes' deep respect and admiration for veterans, but always wondered where the women were," Donnelly said. "I wanted to be out there among those veterans, and that really inspired me to think about the military as a career choice."

That inspiration surfaced years later while shopping with girlfriends. Nineteen years old and fresh out of high school, Donnelly came upon an Air Force recruiter's office while shopping in small-town Tennessee, and decided to stop in to "see what they had to say."

"I must've liked it, because I signed enlistment papers that day," she said, laughing.
Now with a team of Airmen she "absolutely loves" and a family of her own, Donnelly said she often reaches back to her roots when taking care of her children and her wingmen. When someone "is in need of a prayer," she recalls her mother's calming method of burning sage and sweetgrass to send out said prayer.

She encourages her children Alyssa, 15, and Nicholas, 9, to embrace the same "extended family" she grew up with and appreciate the traditions she enjoyed.

"We grew up with a strong set of beliefs, and I carry that into the lives of my children," Donnelly said. "My daughter is beginning to embrace dance, and I've began taking my son to pow-wows for him to understand and enjoy the culture."

As for her Airmen, Donnelly preaches compassion, family and fun, and said she wants to be "the best senior noncommissioned officer and role model she can be."

"I always tell my Airmen to remember their goals," she said. "It's easy to lose focus and lose sight of the goals you set for yourself. Care about yourself, and care about those around you."

Now 17 years into her Air Force career, Donnelly said she "isn't completely sure what comes next," but is excited for the opportunities ahead of her. Regardless of what path she takes, she said her roots will provide the guiding light for her and her family.

"I know wherever we go, we will feel right at home," she said. "We'll embrace those we meet as family just like I always have. It's who I am."