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Recognizing the long history of Native Americans in the US Armed Forces

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On Veterans Day, our country pauses to remember those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Yet how many Americans know of the exceptional contributions of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, who have served in the military at an extraordinary rate in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War.

Many people may find this record of service astonishing, given the painful history of violence, marginalization and injustice Native Americans have endured. Or, as veteran Kurt V. BlueDog has said, “Some might say we have many reasons not to participate in the armed forces, given that the government overran our homelands, suppressed our cultures and confined us to reservations.”

Virtually every Native American I know has a grandparent, uncle, aunt, brother or sister who has served in the military. And virtually every one of those families has a tale of valor. Veterans like M. Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble, the first member of the Sioux Nation to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, recognizing his heroic actions during the Korean War. Or 1st Lt. Nainoa K. Hoe, 27, a Native Hawaiian who lost his life serving in Iraq; Sgt. Debra Kay Mooney, who organized a powwow in an Iraqi war zone; or Col. Wayne Don, who currently commands 1,200 Alaska National Guard soldiers.

I’m thinking also of my own family members—my grandfather Phillip Gover, who served in Italy in World War II; his brother Grant, a Pawnee Code Talker, who was killed in action in 1944 while serving in France; my uncles Marshall and Garry, who were sent to Vietnam, and my nephew Nathan Page, who served in Afghanistan.

While each Native American member of the U.S. military has a unique story to share, their reasons for serving our country are no different than any other population’s. They joined the military to receive an education; to rise out of poverty; because of family tradition, a sense of duty and, of course, patriotism.

Recognizing this long history and broad participation, Congress commissioned the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to build a memorial on the grounds of the museum in Washington, D.C., to give “all Americans the opportunity to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans in the Armed Forces of the United States.” Like all national monuments and memorials, the National Native American Veterans Memorial will be built entirely with private funds. Having broken ground earlier this fall, we will dedicate the memorial one year from today.

A national competition resulted in identifying a fitting designer: Harvey Pratt, a Vietnam veteran, Cheyenne peace chief, United States Marine and Oklahoma-based artist who embodies the best qualities of Native veterans. His winning design recognizes the legacy of service of past, present and future generations.

An elevated, stainless steel circle balanced on carved stone drum, the design is simple and powerful, timeless and inclusive. It incorporates water for sacred ceremonies, benches for gathering and reflection and four lances where veterans, family members, tribal leaders and others can tie cloths and bundles for prayers and healing. The design creates an interactive yet intimate space for gathering, remembrance, reflection and healing. It will welcome and honor Native American veterans and their families and educate the public about their extraordinary contributions. 

The history of Native Americans is our shared history and a vital part of the American story. On this Veterans Day, let’s celebrate and honor all veterans, including the Native American men, women and their tribal nations who, having too often experienced the worst, nevertheless gave us their best. Their loyalty and bravery have helped make America what it is today.

Kevin Gover (Pawnee) is director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.


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