JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - Staff Sgt. Thereasa Barker-Figueroa, a 108th Wing Airman, was recognized by the Society of American Indian Government Employees, as one of six service members selected for the 2016 Military Meritorious Service Award at a banquet in Catoosa, Oklahoma, June 9, 2016.
Formed in 2002, the Society is the first national non-profit organization representing American Indian and Alaska Native federal, tribal, state, and local government employees. It provides a forum on the issues, challenges, and opportunities of Native Americans in the government workforce.
"It was an absolutely amazing experience," said Barker-Figueroa. "I received the award from three Native American generals, including retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, who was the first female Native American general in the Air National Guard."
The Society selected Barker-Figueroa based on her volunteerism and community service with the Air National Guard. She was bestowed an additional award at the event: induction into the Warrior Society, an elite honor for military veterans.
Barker-Figuero traces her lineage to the Lenni-Lenape, a group of Native American people from the Algonquin nation who populated New Jersey as well as parts of Pennsylvania and New York. In the 18th Century, the Lenape were displaced to reservations in Ohio and Oklahoma.
It was while growing up in a Cleveland suburb that Barker-Figueroa learned about her heritage.
"When I was a little girl, I found a statue of a turtle, and for some reason I felt connected to it," Barker-Figueroa said. "My grandmother told me to remember the turtle, that it would be important. I remembered, but I didn't understand."
For years, the family heritage had been kept secret.
"Once my grandfather passed away, my grandmother got back into events on the Reservations, and told me the full story about our heritage when I was 17. I was shocked, and confused that our family wasn't more excited about our past. There were parts of my family that felt embarrassed about a mixed-race marriage between my grandfather and grandmother," said Barker-Figueroa.
It was during this time that Barker-Figueroa learned that she was part of the Lenape Unami-Turtle Clan, and that the turtle also was featured prominently on the clan's flag.
"It felt like things coming full circle from when I was a child, and I found that hidden meaning in the turtle statue," said Barker-Figueroa.
Barker-Figueroa stays active in the Native American community, attending Pow Wows and other cultural events. Pow Wows are the Native American people's way of meeting together, to join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships, and making new ones.
"This was a tremendous honor and I was completely star-struck, it was a humbling experience," Barker-Figueroa said. "I don't want the awards to be about me, I want it to be a conduit for education and bringing awareness to current Native American issues."