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U.S. Navy names ship in honor of Master Chief James D. Fairbanks, White Earth Nation citizen

People stand for a group photo
Governor Tim Walz, Secretary of the U.S. Navy Carlos Del Toro, Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation Chairman Michael Fairbanks alongside family and friends attended a ceremony naming a ship in honor of the late Master Chief James D. Fairbanks on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Updated: 4:22 p.m.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced on Wednesday a future U.S. Navy ship is named in honor of Master Chief James D. Fairbanks (1952-2011). Fairbanks was a citizen of the White Earth Nation.

In a speech released by the U.S. Navy's press office, Del Toro said Fairbanks is among many Indigenous people who serve in the U.S. Military.

“It is with great honor and conviction that I announce the name of the next of the Navajo-class will bear his name — USNS James D. Fairbanks will carry his legacy of service forward and symbolize his dedication to the Seabees.” 

Fairbanks was the first Native American to serve as Force Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest-ranking enlisted Navy Seabee. In December 2005, Fairbanks became the 13th Force Master Chief of the Seabees.

A man talks at a podium
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced that the future Navajo-class Towing, Salvage and Rescue (T-ATS) ship will be named in honor of James D. Fairbanks.
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Seabees is a nickname for the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions — the C and B for ‘Seabees.’

Fairbanks joins a small group of prominent Native American leaders for whom T-ATS ships are named, including Marine Billy Frank Jr. (Nisqually) and Navy Seal Solomon Atkinson (Tsimshian).

The T-ATS Naval ships are ocean-going towing, salvage and rescue vessels used to support Navy fleets. 

The ceremony honoring Fairbanks took place in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday morning at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. 

Del Toro also announced that Paulette Fairbanks Molin, Master Chief Fairbanks’ sister will serve as a co-sponsor of the USNS James D. Fairbanks. 

Molin represented her siblings and extended family at the ceremony. In a statement to MPR News, Molin lauded the honoring of her late brother Jimmy. 

“This high honor represents active remembrance of our family’s beloved service member in the present as well as into the future. The USNS James D. Fairbanks will continue to signify an extraordinary life of leadership and service,” stated Molin. “Knowing him, my brother would redirect the attention from himself to others, especially the troops, as well as to the work before us.” 

A man addresses an audience
White Earth Nation Chairman Michael Fairbanks addresses the audience.
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

White Earth Nation Chairman Michael Fairbanks led a delegation from White Earth to Washington D.C. to attend the day’s events, and spoke at the ceremony.

“Force Master Chief James Fairbanks was in our language an Ogiichidaa, a Warrior for our People - the Anishinaabeg, and the citizens of the United States. He served with distinction and valor,” the chairman said. “Due to his exemplary leadership, he has earned the right to have a ship named in his honor.”

Fairbanks was joined by Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. 

In an interview with MPR News, Flanagan, also a citizen of the White Earth Nation, praised Chief Master James Fairbanks for his leadership. 

“This honor bestowed on Master Chief Fairbanks also honors the service and the sacrifices made by all Native people who serve and have served our military,” said Flanagan. “We hold our veterans are our warriors and in such high regard.”

Michigan State University professor Gordon Henry Jr. provided an invocation and a song during the ceremony. Henry is a citizen of the White Earth Nation and was a nephew to Fairbanks. Henry told MPR he has fond memories of playing baseball with his uncle as a child.

“Jim was, to me, always sort of a positive leader, always smiling,” said Henry. 

Henry credits the community of Pine Point on White Earth with fostering a sense of pride and resilience in Fairbanks and others. 

He said, “There’s this long history of engagement and service and willingness to fight or serve, not necessarily always fight, but serve in different ways.” 

According to the U.S. State department, Native Americans have served in the U.S. military in every major conflict for the past 200 years and, at times, at a higher rate than any other demographic.

A life of service

James Fairbanks was born in January 1952, the son of Thomas and Marie Fairbanks. He was born and raised in northern Minnesota on the White Earth Indian Reservation, near Pine Point. 

Master Chief James D. Fairbanks
Master Chief James D. Fairbanks
Courtesy image

Fairbanks graduated from Park Rapids High School in 1970 and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in November of the same year. A Marine Corporal, Fairbanks was honorably discharged in September 1972.

Upon returning to Minnesota, he worked for several years as a welder for the American Iron and Supply Company and served as union steward until December 1976.

Fairbanks returned to active duty, enlisting in the U.S. Navy at the start of 1977. He completed a two-year tour and was honorably discharged in 1979. 

Fairbanks then returned again to Minnesota where he worked again as a welder until he re-enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1986. He would remain with the Navy’s Seabees for the rest of his military career. He was selected to lead the Seabees in 2005, a position he held through 2008.  

Fairbanks later served as Command Master Chief, Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Miss., where he lived with his wife Denise. While there, Fairbanks helped to open Gulfport’s Armed Forces Retirement Home in 2010. 

Fairbanks died in Alabama in 2011 at the age of 59.

People sit in chairs
People sit and watch a ceremony naming a ship in honor of the late Master Chief James D. Fairbanks.
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Master Chief Fairbanks was a graduate of the U.S. Navy Senior Enlisted Academy, Class of 1985. He earned an Associate of Arts degree from the University of Phoenix.

Master Chief Fairbanks received the Bronze Star for meritorious achievement during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Fairbanks received numerous commendation medals from the Navy and Marine Corps during his long military career.

Correction (Feb. 21, 2024): A previous version of this story gave the incorrect university affiliation for Gordon Henry Jr. The above story has been updated.   

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