Veterans, who served at a higher rate than any other ethnic group,
Will Be Honored With A Memorial On The National Mall
Keel, a Native American Vietnam vet, who was awarded a Bronze
Star, looks at an exhibit dedicated to Native American vets
at the Museum of the American Indian. (Michael Robinson Chavez
| The Washington Post)
Washington The Mall is studded with monuments to iconic
people and events, from presidents to wars to civil rights leader
Martin Luther King Jr. Later this month, finalists will be announced
for a memorial to a group with less name recognition: Native American
In the 20th century, Native Americans served in the United States
military at a higher per capita rate than any other ethnic group,
and their service stretches back to the Revolutionary War. This
might sound surprising, given their fraught history with the U.S.
government. Why would so many choose to fight and sacrifice for
a country that has often treated native tribes so badly?
The answer lies in the way many see their patriotism, as inextricably
connected with the land itself, said Rebecca Trautmann, project
curator of the National Native American Veterans Memorial at the
National Museum of the American Indian, upon whose land the memorial
will be built.
"They have described an inherited responsibility to protect
their homeland, their families, their communities and their traditional
way of life," she said.
Or as Debra Kay Mooney, a Choctaw who is a veteran of the Iraq
War, put it: "Our ancestors are the very groundwork of the United
States because we died here first. It's our ancestors' bones and
marrow that has degraded into the ground that is actually in the
roots and the tops of the tallest trees. ... We needed to protect
our ancestors' bones."
While Congress approved the erection of the memorial in 1994,
it did not authorize fundraising for it until 2013. (It is scheduled
to be unveiled on Veterans Day in 2020). Museum staff and members
of an advisory committee traveled around the country, meeting with
tribal leaders and veterans, and came back with a few directives:
Be inclusive of all tribes and traditions; don't leave out women;
remember the sacrifices of family members; and include an element
The design must be broad enough to encompass the vast array
of tribes (567 are federally recognized) yet specific enough that
veterans and their families will recognize themselves and their
That will not be easy for the panel of experts tasked with selecting
the design. For example, some tribes' history of service goes back
longer than others; to some, horses were integral, while others
never rode them.
"What an intriguing memorial this will ultimately be if it is
able to encompass for the casual observer and for Native Americans
the oddities of where we stand today as Native Americans in the
21st century," said Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan tribe,
who along with Mooney is on the advisory committee. "You have native
scouts who were on both sides in the Indian Wars, you have the first
Native American to die in the defense of what would be called the
U.S.A., in the Revolutionary War," a relative of Brown.
The placement of the memorial is significant, said Jefferson
Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, who is co-chairman
of the committee. "Anyone who goes out of the Capitol, down those
steps, that will be the first thing they see. To me, that's exciting."
Keel acknowledged the contradictions inherent in serving a government
that did not always serve its native population fairly. "I think
it's in the warrior tradition to protect the freedoms that we have,
even though we were not allowed to be citizens in general until
[the 1920s]. Even before they were allowed to vote, they served."
The memorial, he said, is "long overdue."
Keel, a Native American Vietnam vet, who won a Bronze Star,
poses for a portrait at the Museum of the American Indian
in Washington, DC on December 19, 2017. (Michael Robinson
Chavez | The Washington Post)
Many Americans don't know the extent of the more painful history
of Native Americans, as well as many of their accomplishments, he
said. "We're not what they learned about in public school systems."
That history includes the forcible removal of native children
from their families to be educated in boarding schools which
in some ways helped prepare them for service. "Students were taken
from homes, their hair cut short, put into military uniforms and
made to lead regimented lifestyles so, often, the military
recruited them," Trautmann said.
Among the best-known Native American veterans are the Choctaw,
who passed messages in their own language during World Wars I and
II a code the enemy was unable to break. And Ira Hayes, one
of six U.S. servicemen to raise the flag at Iwo Jima, became the
subject of a Johnny Cash song.
Even among Native Americans there is a knowledge gap about their
contributions, said Wayne Don, an Alaska Native who is a colonel
in the National Guard. "I didn't know that my two grandfathers were
Alaskan territorial guardsmen until I picked up a book," he said.
Over 31,000 Native American men and women are on active duty,
and more than 140,000 veterans identify as Native Americans or Alaska
Natives. Typically, they are celebrated in their own communities,
with ceremonies and warrior societies that help them when they return
from service. In 2004, a powwow was held in a combat zone near Fallujah,
for which family members sent clothes and other items from the United
But despite the high status of warriors in many tribal traditions,
Native Americans often have a harder time than the general population
gaining access to veterans' benefits, Trautmann said.
"On the one hand, they have this support from the community
that other vets don't, and on the other hand, it can be harder for
them to access medical and social services," she said. "Many of
them turn to traditional healing to deal with some of the PTSD from
An important aspect of the memorial is that "it's intended to
welcome these vets and be a healing experience for them, whether
it's for vets who served many years ago, vets just returning from
service or families who lost members in service," Trautmann said.
National Museum of the American Indian is the planned site
for a memorial honoring Native American veterans. (Bill O'Leary
| The Washington Post)
One of those is Allen Hoe, a Native Hawaiian and Vietnam veteran
whose 27-year-old son Nainoa was killed in Iraq in 2005.
"He was very proud of the fact that his ancestors for 100 generations
were warriors," said Hoe, who has another son in the military. "He
wanted to step forward and provide the gratitude to his ancestors
and conduct himself the way they would want him to."
Hoe said he was originally shocked and disappointed to learn
there was not already a memorial honoring Native American veterans.
While many served with distinction, recognition was not always
accorded to them in their lifetime.
Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson ("Woody") Keeble, a full-blooded
Sioux, served in World War II and later in Korea. He was recommended
for a Medal of Honor, but the paperwork was lost; he was finally
given the award posthumously, in 2008.
"He would be very honored" to see the memorial, said Keeble's
stepson, Russell Hawkins. "He comes from a warrior culture that
epitomized all the values of honor and bravery, and he would want
the story to be told."
Hawkins also hopes the memorial, by highlighting Native Americans'
service and sacrifice, will do something else.
"I think the most bigoted white supremacist, when he reads what
Woody did, saving the lives of his fellow soldiers, he'll say, 'Gee,
maybe these guys aren't so bad after all. Maybe they deserve a little
bit more understanding, a little bit more compassion.'
"I think even the hardest heart will soften."