Courtesy Veterans Affairs Department of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma
Seminole Nation and Veterans Memorial Cemetery memorial wall

Grants Help Vets Find Final Resting Place Close to Home

Kristi Eaton

Edmond Andrew Harjo, a World War II code talker who passed away in March 2014, had always wanted to be buried close to his roots.

A new tribal veteran cemetery at the Seminole Nation helped make that happen. A grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helped to build the cemetery on tribal land.

Galen Greenwalt, director of the Veterans Affairs Department at the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, said it’s gratifying that Harjo is the first veteran interred at the Seminole Nation and Veterans Memorial Cemetery because it has great symbolism.

“First, it honors one of our own, in the sense of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. There is a certain amount of pride in that context,” he said. Harjo’s work is a reminder that everyone can do something to be apart in the nation’s battles, Greenwalt said.

Harjo was a member of the 195th Field Artillery Battalion. A captain heard Harjo and another soldier using the Creek language and put them to work as code talkers. In 2013, Harjo took part in a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring the work of American Indian code talkers.

“Not everyone will be on the front lines or will fly over the enemy, but we can all contribute to the efforts towards victory in some part whether large or small,” Greenwalt said.

The Seminole Nation and Veterans Memorial Cemetery is one of five such cemeteries across the country. The others are located in South Dakota, Arizona and California, according to Veterans Cemetery Grants Program Director George Eisenbach. Four additional tribal cemeteries are under construction, including one in Oklahoma for the Ponca Tribe.

There are 131 national cemeteries and the grant program complements them, Eisenbach said. “The states or tribes will come to us and say, ‘we’d like to put in a cemetery here,’” he said.

In Oklahoma, the Seminole Nation and Veterans Memorial Cemetery is accompanying two national cemeteries: Fort Sill National Cemetery, near Lawton, and Fort Gibson National Cemetery, near Muskogee.

The Seminole Nation dedicated the cemetery on November 21, 2014. It is located on Highway 59 in Seminole, near the Mekusukey Mission area, Greenwalt said.

“It is important for tribes to have their own cemeteries to have a place to honor the Warrior spirit of tribal veterans, a place that is unique to their geographical location and culture,” Greenwalt said. “There is something significant about having a final resting place for those who have served honorably in the military.”

Costs for construction reached a little more than $1.3 million, according to Tammy Norris, the tribe’s procurement officer who worked on the contract work.

“For the tribes themselves, there’s no place close to be buried,” Norris said. “They (tribal members) want to be buried here. It’s wonderful to be able to do that for them.”

Norris noted that before the construction and dedication of the cemetery, the closest national cemetery was 111 miles away.

Among those in attendance for the dedication were Seminole Nation Principal Chief Leonard Harjo; Assistant Chief Lewis Johnson; Mary Culley, tribal government relations specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Eisenbach. Five acres have been set aside for the cemetery, Norris said.

Eisenbach, who retired after 23 years in the military, said he himself didn’t even know there were other national cemeteries outside of Arlington National Cemetery. “I never knew anything about state cemeteries or tribal cemeteries,” he said, noting that outreach is an important part of his job and the grant program.

“Every chance I get to talk to tribal council, tribal government, leadership, tribal members, you name it, I’m going out throughout the country and speaking with them about the program because I find that a lot of folks really don’t know that the program is there for them,” he said.

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