By Guy Aldridge
Over 1,500 Native American military veterans from around the country came to the Mall last month for a dedication ceremony two years overdue. After opening in 2020, the National Native American Veterans Memorial was formally dedicated with events on November 12 and 13, 2022. The memorial was designed by Harvey Pratt, (Cheyenne, Arapaho) a Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran, Southern Cheyenne peace chief, and artist.
The procession of veterans preceded the capstone of the event, a series of speakers on the National Mall. With the Capitol Building and the remnants of a late season hurricane providing a dramatic backdrop to the event, attendees heard speeches from the designer of the memorial, veterans, government officials, politicians, and more. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, noted the memorial is the first ever to be constructed on Smithsonian lands, saying “there’s nothing more important than this being the very first one.”
The ceremony began with a performance of the National Anthem by Charly Lowry (Lumbee, Tuscarora) and Alexis Raeana (Lumbee). The colors were presented by the U.S. Military District of Washington Joint Color Guard and Robert Short, (Kiawah) a Vietnam War veteran, delivered the invocation. Cynthia Chavez Lamar, (San Felipe Pueblo, Hopi, Tewa, and Navajo) the museum’s director, said it is her institution’s responsibility to “forever welcome and honor veterans, and educate people about the extraordinary military service of native veterans and active duty service members.” As every speaker noted in their thanks to native peoples for their service to the country, Native Americans have served at higher rates in the armed forces than any other demographic.
Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, (Ho-Chunk) chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees, read a statement for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, (Pueblo of Laguna) who could not attend. Haaland wrote that Native American contributions have “often gone unrecognized throughout our history,” but “this memorial changes that.”
U.S. Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas (Ho-Chunk) said Native Americans serve in the military “because they choose patriotism” and “love of this country and these lands.” Davids also said they “choose to imagine a better future for their families and their community.”
In an era of increased scrutiny of history, even the uncomfortable parts, some speakers, including U.S. government officials, confronted the historical mistreatment of Native Americans. Bunch thanked the high percentage of native people who have defended “a country, candidly, that occupied their homelands” and “disrespected their tribal sovereignty…when that country didn’t accept them as equals.” The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, thanked veterans for their service to the country, “with all our imperfections so that our highest ideals and core values could continue,” and for defending freedoms “that many native vets did not themselves enjoy.”
The event coincided with Native American Heritage Month, which was noted by at least one speaker. Yet none mentioned that they stood on land where over 4,000 Native Americans as DC residents have never, and still do not, have a vote in Congress.
The ceremony lasted over an hour. Pratt delivered a moving dedication at its culmination. He said the memorial, which “came about in a dream,” is “about warriors of the past, warriors of today, and warriors of tomorrow.” Pratt said his ancestors and descendents would recognize the elements of the memorial, as it was “made for all ages.” He then lit the memorial, and the ceremony was concluded with taps.
After the ceremony, many attendees came forward to fasten prayer ties onto the memorial. It can be seen outside the National Museum of the American Indian, near the intersection of Maryland Avenue SW and 3rd Street SW.