Oklahoma artist makes history with veterans memorial


Harvey Pratt, designer of the National Native American Veteran Memorial, speaks with reporters at the Museum of the American Indian. The memorial can be seen in the distance over his shoulder. Photo courtesy Gaylord News / Jessie Christopher Smith

WASHINGTON — The first national memorial to Native American war veterans, which was designed by an Oklahoma artist, was unveiled on Veterans Day in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian officially opened its National Native American Veterans Memorial on Wednesday. What might have been a much grander event was instead a quieter mostly-virtual affair, a rainy reflection of how much COVID-19 has impacted tribal communities and military veterans.

Harvey Pratt, who designed the memorial, told reporters during a press conference at the museum he felt proud to see his work honoring veterans.

“It’s almost mind-boggling to think that the memorial that you designed is in Washington with all these other national memorials,” said Pratt, who lives in Guthrie.

Pratt, an internationally-acclaimed painter and forensic artist with 50 years of law enforcement experience, also holds a connection to the memorial’s themes. He is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and was a Marine who saw combat in the Vietnam War.

The memorial, an elevated stainless steel ring sculpture resting above a carved stone drum, is based on motifs and imagery important to many tribes.

The National Native American Veteran Memorial is a stainless steel sculpture raised atop a carved stone drum. Photo courtesy Gaylord News / Jessie Christopher Smith

“This is designed for Native Americans, but we welcome all veterans to come here to be healed and to pray,” Pratt said.

The circular shape and positioning of the sculpture deliberately evokes a hole in the sky, according to Pratt. And when veterans come to pray, he said, the memorial symbolizes a bridge between the visitor and a higher power.

The memorial commemoration was supposed to include a veterans’ procession and a dedication ceremony, but the coronavirus pandemic forced that plan to be replaced by a video tribute and tour hosted on the museum’s website.

“We regret that we’re not able to gather safely today to mark this occasion, but we are grateful that we’re able to share this moment with [others] virtually, and we do look forward very much to the time when we can gather safely for the formal dedication of this memorial,” said Kevin Gover, museum director and a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.

The memorial will become sanctified ground, Gover said, but only once it’s safe to travel again and the museum is back working with a full staff. The planned dedication is being moved to an unspecified date.

The memorial is now open to the public every day free of charge, with timed-entry passes not required.

“I want people to come here and be healed from their pain and their heartaches and the things that they suffer from,” Pratt said.

Gaylord News is a Washington-based reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.