National Native American Veterans Memorial Looks To Honor Service

Nov 8, 2019

The exhibit, "Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation's Armed Forces," highlights the history of Native Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces. It has made its way to Sheridan College and comes from the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. It also is meant to raise awareness for the future National Native Americans Veterans Memorial in D.C. that will be finished next year. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with the memorial's project curator Rebecca Trautmann about how the exhibit and memorial honor Native veterans.

Rebecca Trautmann: Native Americans have served at a very high rate in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War, which I think surprises a lot of people. The exhibition includes historical photographs and texts about the history of service. And it's kind of organized around the different major conflicts of the past couple of centuries. And it also talks a little bit about our plans for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which is going to honor this service on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Catherine Wheeler: What has been the process of developing this new national memorial for Native American veterans?

RT: So we spent about a year and a half from 2015 to 2017, traveling across the country and holding these consultations. We spent spoke with about 1,200 people total. And that really gave us a good sense of what Native veterans in particular and their families want to see in the memorial. And so the things that we heard in those consultations directly shape our design goals for the memorial. We held at international design competition to select a design for the memorial, and we received about 120 design proposals. We had a jury that chose the design submitted by a man named Harvey Pratt. Harvey Pratt is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe. He's a Southern Cheyenne Peace Chief. And he also happens to be a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. And so I think he really brought his own experience as somebody who has served himself and has experienced this long tradition of service to his thinking about the design.

CW: What is the theme or the goal to encapsulate with the memorial?

RT: Harvey's concept for the memorial is really to create a gathering space where people can come and perform ceremonies or just sit and reflect and remember those who have served. So some of the things that we heard in our consultations were first at the memorial must be inclusive. This is something we knew and we heard strong support for this idea that it needs to honor Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian veterans from all branches of service, men and women, and all eras of service from the past and going into the future, too. We also heard that many people really had a strong preference for locating it in one of the quieter parts of the museum's grounds, so that it could be kind of a quiet, contemplative space to visit. And we heard that they'd like to see Native American spirituality incorporated into the memorial so that it becomes a space for healing. And so it's going to be situated kind of within a wooded area on our grounds. And the kind of dominant forum in the memorial is an elevated stainless steel circle that sits atop a low carved stone drum form. So the circle represents a lot of different ideas for different communities but it calls to mind a gathering space for storytelling or for ceremony or for dance.

It really creates a space where people can come and gather and remember those who have served. And it's a place for young veterans who are just returning or veterans of many years ago can come and hopefully have a sense of peace and healing and remembrance. In September of this year, we celebrated the ceremonial groundbreaking for the memorial. We're getting ready to start construction soon, and we'll be dedicating the memorial next November on Veterans Day of 2020. And so we're really excited to finally be getting ready to open the memorial and to raise awareness and honor this long tradition of service.

CW: And earlier this year, I spoke with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie about some of the unique challenges that Native American veterans are facing, such as lack of insurance and higher rates of service-connected disability. And so I'm wondering if there's a hope that this exhibit and the memorial will raise awareness about some of the issues that Native American veterans are facing.

RT: We certainly hope so. You know, in our consultations, we heard both stories of, you know, proud stories of service, but also stories of the pain that many veterans still feel about their service and the need for resources, the need for support. And so we plan on having around this memorial, ongoing programming and exhibitions and articles in our magazine, and we hope to use those as ways to raise awareness of some of these issues. I think that many Native communities have warrior societies, have other ways of supporting their veterans and helping them to return into the community following their service. At the same time, as you say, there can be greater difficulty in accessing services, especially if you're in a more maybe remote or rural location rather than in a city. And so we do hope to raise awareness of some of those issues and to help bring greater attention to the need for more resources.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.