‘Gives Me Chills’ Veterans Memorial From Native Perspective

Brian Daffron

Many Americans know about the Navajo Code Talkers and about Ira Hayes, the Pima who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi during World War II. Yet, there are many largely unknown stories of Native veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces, going back to the American Revolution. After many years of political roadblocks, the National Museum of the American Indian will finally get a chance to honor these veterans through their perspective.

“As many more of these stories are known, people will begin to ponder that these people who had been so terribly wronged by the United States throughout history were nevertheless patriots and believed in the promise of the United States,” said NMAI director Kevin Gover. “It gives me chills to think about that, to wonder at it and be awed by it.”

The $15 million campaign to officially begin the creation efforts kicked off on October 20, 2015, during a reception held at the National Congress of American Indians’ 72nd annual convention in San Diego. Plans include outreach to tribes and veterans’ organizations, the artists’ bidding phase, and concurrent exhibits. Gover, Pawnee, said that initial pledges of $5,000.00 each were made that evening by the Tulalip, Puyallup and Mohegan Nations, as well as the National Indian Gaming Association, with a promise of more to come from them.

Originally, the legislation to create the Monument was signed into law with the Native American Veterans Memorial Establishment Act of 1994. However, two key provisions held up the creation of a memorial. This included stipulations that the monument could not be outdoors on the National Mall, but instead had to be inside NMAI. Also, NMAI was not allowed to raise funds for the monument, but instead had to depend on NCAI to lead the efforts. The reasons for these riders in the bill “are lost to history,” Gover said.

“That wasn’t very attractive to us for a couple of reasons,” Gover said. “One, a permanent installation inside the museum was really very limiting. More importantly, it’s going to be viewed by fewer people. The other memorials to the service of different people were all outside. We could see no reason why the memorial shouldn’t be outside on the National Mall.”

After nearly 20 years, legislation written by Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a Cherokee Nation member, removed the roadblocks in order to create the Memorial. It was signed into law by President Obama on December 26, 2013.

According to Gover, this will be the biggest undertaking for NMAI since the creation of the museum, with the memorial’s initial opening date set for Veterans Day 2019.

The significance of a Native American veterans’ memorial on the National Mall cannot be underestimated. Currently, over 154,000 veterans identify themselves as solely American Indian or Alaskan Native. From the World War II era, over 44,000 Natives served in the armed forces out of an overall Native population of 350,000. Furthermore, out of the 42,000 Native military personnel during the Vietnam era, the VA reports that over 90 percent were volunteers. With these numbers, the influence of even one Native American in a military unit is going to have an impact. Gover said that this is one of the reasons why the Veterans’ Memorial will reach beyond Indian country and toward many veteran organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“When you talk to most veterans, most of them has a story about the ‘Indian guy’ in their unit,” Gover said. “You might talk to some veteran of Vietnam, and they’ll tear up talking about their ‘Indian buddy’ they fought alongside in Vietnam. We expect to get a lot of support from the general veterans’ organizations and their members.”

While fund-raising efforts begin, there are other NMAI-related veteran projects taking place. One of these is a traveling exhibition within the next eight months on Native American veterans, with funding already contributed by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

Overall, Gover said the project will give affirmation to the Native American veteran’s contribution by the federal government as a whole, and the Smithsonian Institution in particular. For these reasons, NMAI wants to do its best.

“We hope to do as good a job as it deserves,” he said.

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