Tribal legacy: Culture, dedication, honor

Airman 1st Class Elena Gallegos, 450th Intelligence Squadron geospatial intelligence apprentice, displays a tribal face painting in support of Isleta Pueblo Navajo tribe for Native American Heritage month at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Nov. 11, 2022. Within her tribe special face paintings represent various traditions and events each expressing a different meaning. Gallegos wore this specific face painting to represent the people she has lost in the year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Wongwai)

Within the hot and dry landscape of New Mexico resides the Isleta Pueblo Navajo tribe, where the people with no electricity, no air conditioning or phones live off of the land, hunt, farm, and nurture a rich culture for their members, like future U.S. Air Force Airman Elena Gallegos.

Growing up on the reservation, she had to learn various skills and work different jobs while understanding and practicing her tribe’s traditions, as they instilled the importance of bettering oneself and in turn bettering the community. A way of life very similar to the Air Force.

“Life on the reservation is free and fun — there’s isn’t a large amount of stress that comes with living on the reservation, but there are a lot of cultural things we do inside our reservations,” said Airman 1st Class Elena Gallegos, 450th Intelligence Squadron geospatial intelligence apprentice “We have local festivities and provide a cultural gathering to let people on the outside know our culture.”

In her youth, she lived off the land, learned various skills and traditions that defined her tribe, and accomplished her goals — but, she felt like she needed more.

“There is no hurdle you cannot get over if you give effort,”said Gallegos. “I ran thin on the things I could accomplish in life on the reservation, and I wanted to explore more of the outside world.”

Armed with the skills and work ethic that her tribe instilled within her, she set out for a new adventure filled with challenges and surprises and set her eyes on the U.S. Air Force.

Gallegos braved this new experience, but it did not fill her with fear and despair. Instead it gave her the excitement and drive to embrace the new lifestyle, to embrace the Air Force culture.

“The diversity, being around so many people with different cultures and different languages, was surprising since I never heard another language back home,” said Gallegos. “It was very different and busy but also cool, and I didn’t expect to meet so many amazing people.”

As she progressed through the Air Force, integrating within the community, learning new skills, establishing important relationships and continuing to better herself, she’s reminded of how military lifestyle differs from living in the tribe.

“I got used to the busy lifestyle that the military brings,” said Gallegos. “When I go back home, where it’s more relaxed and you don’t over exert yourself, I want to get back to work.”

It was clear that these new experiences were influencing the way Gallegos thought, but it did not change her at her core.

Living the military lifestyle didn’t change or alter her belief in her culture, but allowed her the opportunity to show others that you can stay true to your culture and the Air Force.

“I hope by talking about my culture that I can show others that you can be comfortable expressing your culture,” said Gallegos. “ I am grateful to have a place to share my thoughts.”

Though she isn’t stopping there as she plans for new avenues and programs to help others and strengthen diversity within the Air Force.

“I want to make a cultural program with some other volunteers and bring a lot of diversity together to talk about our cultures,” she said. “ I also want to create a self-defense class, especially for women, and hope that I can help others in their lives.”

Gallegos’s determination to help others provides an important asset for Airmen at Ramstein Air Base and for diversity throughout the Air Force — but that is not the only community she’s hoping to help.

“I know my tribe has started to adapt to new tools like using solar power,” said Gallegos. “And I’m hoping that with everything that I’ve learned and experienced I can help the elders in my tribe see and understand the new ways, which then would help the younger generation adapt to the world.”

Every experience, challenge and accomplishment has guided Gallegos and she never forgot what defined her life within her tribe and her life within the Air Force — that to better oneself is to better the community.