Thousands of Native Americans Attend Long Awaited Veteran’s Memorial Dedication


Celebration participants march across the National Mall. Gaylord News/Beck Connelley

WASHINGTON – More than two years after its opening, the Native American Veteran’s Memorial in the nation’s capital was finally dedicated Friday in a ceremony lasting more than three hours.

Tribal leaders and citizens and veterans from across the country marched down the National Mall on Veterans Day to a stage at the foot of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Rex Hailey, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and a Gulf War veteran, drove halfway across the country to attend the celebration.

“It’s important because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing being here,” Hailey said.“This (the memorial) is something that is going to be here for a very long time that my grandchildren can see as well.”

The memorial was designed by Oklahoma artist Harvey Pratt. A member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Pratt grew up in El Reno and was deployed to Vietnam in the Marine Third Reconnaissance Battalion, making him one of 42,000 Native Americans who served in that war.

The Smithsonian Institution toured the country to find out what Native American veterans wanted reflected in a potential war memorial. When Pratt heard of the Smithsonian’s search, inspiration for the memorial came to him in a dream.

“I dreamed about it and I got up the next morning and made some sketches,” said Pratt. He then showed the sketches to his wife and son who encouraged him to move forward with his vision. Pratt received resources and financial support from multiple groups across Oklahoma including Hans and Torrey Butzer, designers of the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

Pratt was intentional in his design of the memorial, making sure every aspect of it represented something. The “path of life” leading up to the center has the five military seals. The centerpiece of the memorial, the ring, represents harmony with “water, fire, the Earth and the air.”

Four lances rise above the memorial, intentionally placed along the four cardinal directions. Even the railing has a rippling effect to emulate a drum vibration.

The memorial is open to interpretation by those experiencing it. During his first trip to the memorial, Hailey saw the ring as having a whole other meaning. He imagined the ring as a “full circle of life” with both a “beginning” and an “end.”

Thousands of Native Americans from across the country rallied to show their support during the ceremony. The dedication featured numerous tribal leaders and was led by prominent Native Americans including actor Wes Studi and retired NASA astronaut John Herrington. A common theme among the speakers soon became apparent.

“(The memorial) is a reminder that there is nothing more patriotic than a resilient love and respect for a country that has not always loved and respected them (Native Americans) in return,” said Lonnie Bunch II, secretary of the Smithsonian.

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who is currently a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, echoed Bunch’s sentiment in his statement to the thousands gathered for the dedication.

“It would have been normal, even rational, that when called upon to serve in the military, and fight and die for America, the reaction of Native Americans over the decades might have been no thanks,” said Sullivan. “But that wasn’t the reaction. To the contrary, it was the opposite.”

Each speaker highlighted the courageous and admirable response of Native Americans who have been asked to serve their country, a country that has taken so much from them. Native Americans have served in every major conflict in the past 200 years.

Before they were even granted citizenship in 1924, anout 15,000 Native Americans served in World War 1. In World War II, about 13% of all Native Americans enlisted, making them the demographic with the highest voluntary enlistment rate. Of the 42,000 Native Americans who served in Vietnam, 90% enlisted voluntarily.

“There’s more Native Americans than any other race that went to war. So this is very important to all of this,” Hailey said.

The celebrations will continue throughout the weekend with music and cultural performances taking place on Saturday and Sunday.

The memorial can be visited by the public 24 hours a day free of charge.


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