A new “Warrior’s Circle of Honor” at the National Native American Veterans Memorial
Earlier this year for Memorial Day, I wrote a blog about arts programs that serve veterans and their families. As Veterans Day approaches, I want to uplift the new National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which will be formally dedicated on Friday, November 11, 2022. Designed by Harvey Pratt (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma), the “Warrior’s Circle of Honor” is located on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on the National Mall and was commissioned by Congress to give all Americans and our international visitors the opportunity to learn more about the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans in the Armed Forces of the United States. Although the memorial was installed two years ago, the official dedication was postponed because of the pandemic. The Native Veterans Procession and Dedication Ceremony on Veterans Day will be one of the most significant public ceremonies in recent memory.
As a tribute to Native heroes, this work of public art recognizes, for the first time on a national scale, the distinguished service of American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian veterans in every branch of the U.S. military. There are many war memorials in the National Capital Region, including the U.S. Air Force Memorial, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) in Arlington, Virginia; and the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and United States Navy Memorial, among others, in the nation’s capital. The Native Veterans Memorial, however, has the distinction of being the only public monument that pays tribute exclusively to the legacy and sacrifice of our Indigenous communities. Given that Native Americans have a long history of service dating back to the Revolutionary War, and also serve at the highest per capita level of participation of any demographic, it is especially appropriate (and it’s about time!) for Native American veterans to be honored with this memorial. There are approximately 24,000 Native people who are on active duty, and another 150,000 Native veterans.
Public art in the 21st century is playing a key role in creating meaningful places for gathering and contemplation. Many memorials created in the not-so-distant past are figurative statues of heroic and historical figures. By contrast, both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National Native Americans Veterans Memorial are abstract works that are meditative in tone and rich in symbolism. The National Native American Veterans Memorial also serves as a place of reverence and honor, a commemoration of people who served with honor, and a site of celebration.
Harvey Pratt and the “Warrior’s Circle of Honor”
Harvey Pratt is a self-taught artist whose works references Native American history and traditions that are informed from his own tribal background. Born in El Reno, a town near the center of Oklahoma, Pratt has expressed gratitude to his parents and teachers for encouraging his artistic talent early on, which connects with his deep lifelong respect for veterans. Pratt served as a U.S. Marine in Air Rescue and Security stationed at the Da Nang Air Base in the Vietnam from 1962 to 1965, and has been recognized by his tribal community as an outstanding Southern Cheyenne and designated as a traditional Peace Chief, Cheyenne Nation’s highest honor.
Pratt’s work is an elevated stainless-steel circle balanced on an intricately carved stone drum with a design that incorporates water for ceremonies, benches for gathering and reflection, and four lances where veterans and their family members, tribal leaders, and the public can tie cloths for prayers and healing. Entering the memorial, visitors hear thirteen Native American veteran songs playing on a continuous loop from the Ojibwe, Menominee, Blackfeet, Ho-Chunk, Kiowa, and Lakota Nations as heard on the Smithsonian Folkways recording “American Warriors: Songs for Indian Veterans.”
As articulated by Pratt, the memorial is “a place to sit and do whatever someone has to do for medicine, to use the water, use the earth, use the wind. I hope it will be a place for war mothers. As non-Native visitors see Native veterans and their families blessing the water and tying prayer cloths, letting the wind carry their prayers, the memorial will be a place of learning and understanding as well. I hope it will be a place where veterans come and tell a war story, and where people come and say, ‘We’re so proud of you.’” As an interactive and inclusive public gathering space, the work has multiple powerful symbols that speak to all of us. By incorporating Native music and creating a space for remembrance and reflection, the memorial is a site of healing and honor: bold, timeless, powerful, and historically significant, yet simple, serene, and emotionally uplifting.
Leadership, Funding, and Process Requirements for the Memorial
A distinguished group of Native and non-Native jurors, which included community-based tribal leaders, experienced curators with strong backgrounds in public art, unanimously selected Pratt’s design concept from among the 120 submissions for the memorial. Other finalists in the selection process were James Dinh, the team of Dan Jones and Kelly Haney, Stefanie Rocknak, and Leroy Transfield. I commend NMAI’s then-Director Kevin Gover, NMAI’s staff, and the jurors for managing such a highly visible, transparent, and professional selection process. Ben Nighthorse Campbell from the Northern Cheyenne nation (who served as a Senator from Colorado and, for many years, as an NMAI Trustee) and Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel led an advisory committee of tribal leaders and veterans to help with national outreach. The NMAI organized dozens of regional community-based gatherings (NMAI calls these “community consultations”) throughout the country to solicit their input, advice, and support.
Although Congress passed legislation authorizing the project in 2013, there was no federal funding used for the memorial. NMAI raised over $15 million for this project which has a long list of donors, including Tribal Nations, Native American businesses, the National Indian Gaming Association, Wounded Warriors Family Support, scores of individual donors, and major international corporations including General Motors and Bank of America. Pratt worked with Butzer Architects and Urbanism (of Oklahoma City) on the memorial’s design. The stainless-steel ring was fabricated by RedLand Sheet Metal (also in Oklahoma City) and the bronze lance tips and feathers were fabricated by the Crucible Foundry in Norman. The NMAI staff who managed the memorial were Project Curator Rebecca Head Trautmann and Project Manager Betsy Gordon.
National Cultural Programs and Exhibitions: Stories of Native Peoples
In concert with the installation of the memorial, NMAI organized the online exhibition “Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces,” which documents the personal stories of Native veterans and the history and commitment of their service. This exhibition—as well as the memorial itself and related program events—helps examine a central question: Why would Native people serve a country that overran their homelands, suppressed their cultures, and confined them to reservation? This is a complicated inquiry that touches on the meanings of patriotism, as well as the tough economic realities in Indian Country (scholars make the argument that the high military recruitment levels in tribal communities is related to the underlying economic and social conditions in their communities). The memorial will serve as a gathering place where such issues can be discussed and understood in more meaningful ways.
To advance scholarship and encourage a higher level of public discourse in partnership with the NMAI, the Veterans History Program of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center collects, documents, and preserves the stories of Native people who have served in the military through photography and archived interviews and correspondence. The archival record of this documentary evidence is of great value to researchers, teachers, communities, artists, and writers, including journalists.
NMAI also organized a traveling exhibition to be presented in both Native communities and other public venues across the country that documents the achievements of Native Americans who have served in the military. There are such rich and important chapters in American history about Native Americans that warrant far greater public recognition and attention. In World War I and II, for example, there were hundreds of Native Americans serving in the military from more than 20 tribes who used their Indigenous languages to send secret, coded messages that our enemies could never break. The public historical record documents that these “code talkers” helped achieve military victories in some of the most significant battles of the last century.
During my career at NMAI (1995-2017), it was a special honor to serve on the team that produced the exhibit “For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw.” Poolaw was a World War II photographer from Kiowa Nation who took many photographs of Native American veterans. And while academics, curators, and museums like the NMAI have advanced this discourse with such programs and exhibitions, there is significantly more work to be done on these important research topics.
Engaging and Supporting Military Communities Through the Arts
For local arts agencies and arts producing organizations, the challenges in working effectively with veterans and the broader military community are especially demanding. Thanks to resources and deep commitments by national institutions like the Library of Congress, Americans for the Arts’ National Initiative for Arts & Health Across the Military, and museums like the National Museum of the American Indian, creative workers can get support to effectively advance important initiatives that provide programs and services and spark important public discourse about key issues, including health and wellness, coping with extreme stress and trauma frequently connected with military service, and informed and civil discussions about military spending and how best to care for the men and women who serve in the military. The National Native American Americans Veterans Memorial provides us with greater opportunities to consider these overlapping and complex political and social issues, as does the updated Arts and Social Impact Explorer, which provides our field with data and content related to the military, health and wellness, the environment, social justice, diplomacy, and heritage, among other topics. There is tremendous potential for the cultural sector to become more engaged with military communities and organizations that address their concerns.
The writer, critic, and public monument expert Erika Doss urges us to look carefully and critically at public art and monuments, including memorials. Doss argues that these memorials underscore our obsession with issues of memory and history, and the urgent desire to express—and claim—those issues in visibly public contexts. By offering a framework for understanding these sites, Doss engages the larger issues behind our culture of commemoration. Driven by the heated struggles over identity and the politics of representation, her book Memorial Mania provides us with the context to grasp the enormity of the issues. Likewise, the National Native American Veterans Memorial encourages us to consider the meanings of how Native Americans have served and sacrificed throughout American history. As cultural leaders, we have both the opportunity and a responsibility to engage the broader public in the issues of historical and cultural representation.