The National Native American Veterans Memorial at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (photos by and courtesy of Alan Karchmer for the National Museum of the American Indian)

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a federal holiday for the remembrance of those who risked their lives on the frontlines. However, one group often left out of commemoration speeches and commemorative landmarks are Native Americans. A long overdue memorial in Washington, DC — the nation’s very first monument to Native veterans — marks a major step forward in the recognition of their service.

The sculpture was designed by Harvey Pratt of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran.

The memorial is located on the east side of the National Museum of the American Indian, just off the National Mall and overlooking a freshwater wetland. Designed by Harvey Pratt of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, it features a 12-foot-tall stainless steel ring resting on a carved stone drum at the center of a circular seating area. The shape of the circle holds special significance to many Native American cultures, recurring in dance, storytelling, and prayer. Water for sacred ceremonies flows from the sculpture, and visitors may leave prayer ties, a symbol of spirituality for Native people, on four vertical lances.

According to the NCAI, American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the US Armed Services at a higher rate than any other ethnic group and have served in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War; however, their contributions are often diminished. Research has found that veteran services for Native Americans are less adequate than those provided to their non-Native counterparts; the former face greater barriers to healthcare, for example, than non-Hispanic white veterans. 

“Some might say we have many reasons not to participate in the armed forces, given that the government overran our homelands, suppressed our cultures and confined us to reservations,” said Kurt V. BlueDog (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Minnesota), who served in the US Army.

In 1994, Congress passed legislation to build the memorial on the premises of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened a decade later, but funding challenges stalled its completion. In 2013, an amendment gave the museum permission to fundraise for the memorial. A nationwide competition for the sculpture followed, and a jury selected Pratt’s design, “Warriors Circle of Honor,” out of more than 400 submissions.

“The National Native American Veterans Memorial will serve as a reminder to the nation and the world of the service and sacrifice of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian veterans,” said the museum’s director, Kevin Gover, in a statement. “Native Americans have always answered the call to serve, and this memorial is a fitting tribute to their patriotism and deep commitment to this country.”

To coincide with the memorial’s inauguration, the museum has published Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces, co-authored by Alexandra Harris and Mark Hirsch. A virtual discussion with Harris will take place on Thursday, November 12, at noon EST; it will focus on the warrior stereotype of Native people serving in the military and traditions of peace and war within American Indian communities. Registration details can be found here.

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