Construction begins Saturday on Native American Veterans Memorial

A rendering of the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which is planned for the National Mall.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 20, 2019

WASHINGTON – Work begins Saturday on the National Mall to establish a long-sought memorial recognizing the military service of Native Americans – service that many in the United States remain unaware of, according to leaders of the project.

The concept for the National Native American Veterans Memorial originated more than 25 years ago. Lawmakers and Native American groups wanted a public place to honor those who – despite the United States not keeping its commitments to the population – served and sacrificed for their country.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American Indians served in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I don’t think the general public is really aware of that, and I think people are often surprised,” said Rebecca Trautman, curator of the National Museum of the American Indian. “We’re hoping the memorial and the ongoing programming we plan to do around it will help to raise that awareness.”

The memorial, with an estimated cost of $15 million, will be built on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. The museum plans to celebrate its groundbreaking Saturday with a ceremony, speeches, a drum circle and other all-day events. A discussion between museum director Kevin Gover and Harvey Pratt, the memorial designer, starts at 2:30 p.m.

The museum is planning a dedication ceremony for the new memorial on Veterans Day in 2020. That will mark 26 years since Congress passed legislation in 1994 that called for the establishment of a memorial to honor Native American veterans.

The legislation was found to contain some barriers, including a provision that it be built inside the museum. The museum was also given no control over its financing. In 2013, an amendment was approved that addressed those issues.

At that point, the museum “started working on the project right away,” Trautman said.

In a span of 18 months, project leaders held 35 meetings across the country where they gathered feedback from more than 1,200 veterans and their family members about what they wanted out of the memorial.

Pratt, an artist and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma, and a Vietnam War veteran, created the winning concept. Jurists chose his design last year out of 120 proposals.

The design – an elevated, stainless steel circle balanced on a carved stone drum – is described as simple, powerful and inclusive.

“The circle is something that is really meaningful to most – if not all – native communities in different ways,” Trautman said. “It represents the cycle of life, the cycle of the season, the cyclical nature of time. It suggests a circular gathering place for storytelling, prayer or ceremony.”

The design also incorporates water and fire and is structured as a quiet gathering space for those who want to use the memorial to heal.

“Harvey Pratt also made a conscious decision to bring in a number of key elements – water fire, earth and wind,” Trautman said. “He talks about water representing purification, fire representing strength, the earth refers to the homeland that so many people feel obligated to protect and part of the reason many of them feel the strong responsibility to serve.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

An artist's sketch of the National Native American Veterans Memorial.