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This site for reflection and remembrance is set in the wooded landscape adjacent to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., to honor the rich tradition of the American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiian men and women.
Today, more than 31,000 Native people are on active duty and more than 140,000 veterans identify as Native. Last year, the memorial was opened on Veterans Day, but it has been in the planning stages for 25 years.
Kevin Gover, the Director of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian and a member of Oklahoma’s Pawnee Tribe, said the stainless-steel sculpture set over a carved stone drum near the museum’s entrance is hallowed ground because Native Americans have served in the Armed Forces at a greater rate than any other group. War Department officials have stated that during World War II, if the entire population had enlisted at the same rate that Native Americans did, Selective Service would have been unnecessary. According to the Selective Service, in 1942, at least 99% of all eligible Native Americans, healthy males aged 21-44, registered for the draft.
In every major conflict involving the U.S., Native Americans showed their allegiance, bravery and love of land. It is well known that without the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II, the U.S. would not have taken Iwo Jima. Additionally, over 20 Native Americans have won the Medal of Honor.
Director Gover said, “Native Americans have always answered the call to serve, so this memorial is a fitting tribute to their patriotism and deep commitment to this nation. And the reason for its designation as hallowed ground is this; when people bring their memories and prayers to a place, they make it sacred.”
Originally, legislation authorizing the memorial placed it inside the museum, but deciding to locate it outside in one of the most serene and beautiful spots in Washington, D.C., with water, trees and grass offers a place of contemplation, reflection, and gratefulness.
Harvey Pratt of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, envisioned a monument that allows one to also see the nearby U.S. Capitol. Pratt won a national competition for this commission. While touring the museum grounds to identify the exact location, a hawk flew in, landed at the spot, jumped around and stayed in a tree above for an hour. Pratt and Gover concurred that it was a good omen because Pratt’s great-grandfather’s Indian name was Red-Tailed Hawk. He said, “That’s my ancestors coming down here to bless this project.”
Unexpectedly, the hawk showed up intermittently over the next few months, seemingly to observe the construction in progress.
About the National Native American Veterans Memorial
The memorial is simple, abstract and symbolic. A large stainless-steel circle is set perpendicular to a black masonry drum set inside a flowing pool of water. On ceremonial occasions, like Veterans Day, a flame at the base of the circle is lit.
Visitors reach the memorial, called the Warriors’ Circle of Honor, by crossing a short, elevated walkway called the Path of Life, which holds an oxidized metal railing. They pass by the seals of the five main branches of the U.S. military. Four spears or lances are set near the drum and circle, and visitors are invited to attach a cloth prayer tie to them. I attached a small prayer cloth in honor of a fellow first responder I worked with at a Pennsylvania ski resort who was Native American.
Nearby, small speakers play a loop of 13 Native American veterans’ songs from the Ojibwe, Menominee, Blackfeet, Ho-Chunk, Kiowa and Lakota Nations. Symbolically, the stars on the walkway represent lives lost in battle, the flame symbolizes sacrifice and the water stands for hope and renewal. Consequently, the memorial incorporates the elements of fire, water, earth and wind. At the end of the path are benches for quiet contemplation and reflection, particularly of the braveness, persistence and survival of Native Americans.
Interestingly enough, not only is November the month we honor our veterans, but it is Native American Heritage month. Thus, it is only fitting that all veterans who are able to come to Washington include this most sacred site in their itinerary. I make it a point to pay my respects at the same time that I regularly visit the Vietnam Veterans memorial because I remember so many of those fallen. The Native American memorial is free to visit and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Leslie Megyeri is a retired LtC, U.S. Army, who splits his time between Venice, FL and Washington, D.C.