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Learning about other cultures is the key to trust

  • Published
  • By Michele Donaldson
  • Air Force Materiel Command

The Air Force Materiel Command hosted a Native American Heritage Month Cross-Cultural Mentoring Panel Nov. 15. The event is part of an AFMC effort to highlight barriers faced by members of different demographic groups, giving them a place to support each other while also educating Airmen and civilians on how they might seek a mentor or become a better mentor to someone who is unlike themselves.

Panel members came from across the command and included Dennis D’Angelo, Executive Director, Air Force Sustainment Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma;  Jacqueline Melcher, Installation Management Division Director, 88th Civil Engineer Group, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; Patrick Mata, 412th Civil Engineer Squadron, Edwards Air Force Base, California; and Angela Startz, Public Affairs Specialist, Air Force Sustainment Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. The panel was facilitated by Dr. Andrew Duffield, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

The event kicked off with a video from Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole. A member of the Chickasaw Nation himself, Cole offered a powerful message on the rich military history of the Native Americans.

“Many Native Americans did not get the right to vote until 1924 and some as late as the 1960s,” said Cole. “They were not citizens, yet they volunteered to serve.”

The Native American Code Talkers of World War II were one very notable example, but he touched on many other extraordinary instances of service.

Many of the panelists serve on the Air Force Indigenous Nation Equality Team which provides support for the indigenous nation community at the Pentagon. The group has only been in existence for one year but has already broken barriers including advocating for one Airmen who was just recently granted a religious exemption to wear his hair in a traditional long braid while in uniform.

The panelists also answered questions from the field and spoke about the lack of information that the public has about Native American culture. There are hundreds of tribes, all with different beliefs and traditions.

“I encourage people to respectfully ask coworkers about their culture,” said Starz. “But, don’t expect us to speak for all natives. We only speak to our own experiences which are all very different…we want to be heard.”

Mentoring and being mentored by others who have different viewpoints and values only strengthens and diversifies the organization.

“I look Caucasian, but I grew up on a reservation, so I experienced racism from both sides. I developed a tough exterior, but I never lost my soft side,” said Melcher. “Those experiences gave me my ‘don’t give up’ attitude, and I think it helps me to give others I mentor the courage they need to persevere.”

Several panel members suggested resources to help others learn more about the Native American experience. They are compiling those resources, including simple books and podcasts, and will post them to the mentoring site.

“I think the main message here is that no matter who is different in culture from you, you have to build that trust,” said D’Angelo. “You have to admit you don’t willing to accept the individual and bring that into your understanding. Trust is what makes us a rich and diverse organization.”

The recorded event can be viewed at: 

Additional information on mentoring, resources for learning and future panel events is available on the mentoring feature page of the AFMC website at