RICHMOND, Va. –
First Lt. Gavin Steel traces his Native American heritage through the bloodlines of both his maternal and paternal grandmothers. His maternal grandmother comes from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, located today in Western North Carolina. On the paternal side, his grandmother comes from the Coharie Indian Tribe, today located in the southeastern region of North Carolina.
“I am always aware of where I come from,” Steel said. “I always want to honor the Cherokee people. I carry pride for the tribes I belong to every day.”
Steel started his military career in early 2016, as a cadet enrolled in the Simultaneous Membership Program, or SMP, which provides the opportunity for National Guard Soldiers to also participate in their school’s ROTC program while enjoying the benefits of both. In May, he commissioned as an infantry officer.
“I joined so that I could follow in my adopted father’s footsteps,” Steel said, explaining that his adopted father was an officer in the U.S. Navy. “From the day I met him, he always explained to me the importance of a good officer, and the impact they have on those around them. I want to leave my mark on this organization, and leave it better than I found it.”
In 2021, Steel attended and graduated Ranger School.
“The one lesson that stuck out to me the most is that Ranger School is called a ‘leadership’ school not because of what they teach you, but because of those you come in contact with,” Steel said. You are all leaders at Ranger School and you are all taking styles of leadership from each other and creating your own style that you then bring back to the unit.”
At Ranger School, Steel said he learned just how much a body could take and how important it was to divorce himself from bodily discomfort during times of stress. It was an experience that required resilience, as well as both physical and mental strength. When he was just six months old, his name day ceremony prioritized just that.
“This is a tradition that normally happens when you turn 13,” Steel said, explaining that he was extremely sick as a baby. “The Elder who gave me my Native name believed that if I were given a strong name, it would help me.”
Steel was given the name Whitehawk, which he carries today as his middle name.
“That is the name I was given to show truth that I would live a happy, healthy life with clarity and focus,” he said. “My Native name is something I am extremely proud of.”
One thing Steel wants people to know about Native Americans is that they’re all unique.
“There are over 500 tribes and villages in the United States,” Steel said. “Even though we are all Native American, each tribe practices their own culture and honors and respects their own heritage in unique ways."
Today, Steel serves as a platoon leader in the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, and works full time in the National Guard Bureau’s Strength Maintenance Division.