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The National Native American Veterans Memorial:

Warriors’ Circle of Honor

by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anita Y. Chebahtah, All Hands Magazine
01 December 2020

In a year where everything seems to have been turned upside down or delayed and shut down, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian completed their National Native American Veterans Memorial on time and opened it to the public Veterans Day, November 11, 2020.

The memorial has been in the works since the mid-90s when Congress commissioned the museum to construct and maintain the memorial with the ‘‘Native American Veterans Memorial Establishment Act of 1994.’’

“We want to raise the profile of Native service members and Native Veterans,” said Rebecca Trautmann, project curator for the National Native American Veterans Memorial and assistant curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of the American Indian. “It is such an under-recognized story, history and commitment. We’re really hopeful that this memorial, the programming and publications that we continue to do around it will help to tell some of these many different stories.”

The 1994 act reiterates the history of Native American, Alaskan Native, and Hawaiian Native Veterans serving at higher percentages per capita than any other race. It reemphasizes that the NMAI was established as a living memorial to Native Americans and “(i)ts mission is to advance knowledge and understanding of Native American cultures, including art, history, language, and the contributions Native Americans have made to our society.” The fact that the NMAI is part of the Smithsonian Institute and on the National Mall lends itself to being a great location for the National Native American Veterans Memorial and gives “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.”

In 2013, the legislation was amended to allow the memorial to be located on NMAI grounds versus inside the museum, and allowed the museum to raise funds in support of the memorial. The NMAI then formed a memorial advisory committee in 2014 to help with outreach to Native communities and Veterans. From 2015-2017 the advisory committee sought input and support from tribal leaders, Native Veterans, and Native community members.

According to Trautmann, one of the first things they learned in the consultations confirmed what legislation already had written, which was that it needed to be very inclusive. “I traveled across the country with other Museum staff for about 18 months visiting communities, holding consultations, to get a better sense of what Native Veterans, service members, and family and community members wanted to see in the memorial and what they wanted the experience of visiting the memorial to be,” shared Trautmann. “We held 35 consultations across the country, including Alaska and Hawaii, and we spoke with about 1,200 people total. The things that we heard in those consultations directly shaped the design guidelines, so that we knew what we needed to ask the artists and designers who were submitting proposals to accomplish with their designs.

Inputs indicated that many communities believed Native American spiritual beliefs and practices should be incorporated into the memorial design.
Trautmann further explained, “We also heard that it was important that the memorial recognize and honor the support and sacrifices made by families of those who served. We heard that the memorial should reflect Native spirituality, again in a very inclusive way, and that the experience of visiting the memorial should be a healing experience and be a contemplative, peaceful experience.”

The design for the memorial was selected through a two-stage, juried international design competition. The first stage was an open call for design concepts, which started on Veterans Day, November 11, 2017. The museum received 413 registrations from five continents, North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The committee’s vision was to honor the interrelated elements of culture, spirituality, sacrifice, place, valor, healing, future service members, and the legacy of Veterans past. The design competition manual described each vision, wanting the designs to reflect very specific attributes of Native people. For example, the cultural commitment of Native peoples by “their responsibility to protect their homeland, community, family, and traditional way of life.” Native spirituality was to be reflected in ways that were clear to Native visitors and included a space for prayer, reflection, or cleansing, and acts as a place for healing and consolation. The sacrifice of not only the service members but also the sacrifice of their family members were to be honored as well. The memorial was to be timeless, representing the past and future generations, honoring all Native Veterans- Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Hawaiian Natives, from the Revolutionary War to the present day.

Balance, inclusivity, respect, sustainability, endurance, accessibility, and interpretation of memorial elements, were the design concepts the committee agreed on. The committee wanted a balance “between a sense of enclosure and dignity with openness and visibility, inviting exploration and contemplation.” The designs were to have minimal maintenance and be operationally sustainable, incorporating inclusivity for all Natives, honoring past, present, and future Veterans and their families. The memorial was to be accessible and provide an equitable experience for all visitors.

By the end of January 2018, eight jurors selected five designs to continue to the second stage of the competition. The five finalists had almost two weeks to prepare a 15-minute presentation to introduce themselves and initial design concepts to the public. At the end of May, the museum shared the design concepts on social media and invited the public to vote, ask questions, and comment on the designs. In mid-June, the designers presented their final designs to a jury of Native and non-Native artists, designers, scholars, and Veterans who weighed in with the public’s input. On June 26, the jury unanimously selected a circular design that people can enter.

Harvey P. Pratt, a Southern Cheyenne chief for the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran designed the “Warriors' Circle of Honor.” He is an artist and retired Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation forensic artist. Pratt’s design came to him in a dream, he said. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal Veterans director encouraged him to submit a design, and he decided to dream about it. He approached the design through spirituality, ceremonies and tradition of the Aleutians, Native Hawaiians, and Native American peoples. He said he got his Big Chief tablet out and made some sketches after a dream one morning and it just came to him suddenly.

“Some of my best creativity is done early in the morning, you know after that dream period,” said Pratt in a Conversation with the Designer discussion on the day of the ground breaking in 2019 with NMAI Director Kevin Gover. “Native people, we’re the same but we’re different. We have the same concepts, but we do them a little different. I thought that's the way to approach this, is spiritually through ceremonies rather than through a piece of art. I wanted to do something that you could walk into and be involved in.”

“In Harvey’s design, he said that he didn't want to create a statue or sculpture for people to stand and look at,” said Trautmann. “He really wanted to create a space for ceremony, a space for healing. I think that his design really met what we've been asked by the people we met with to try to accomplish.”

“Harvey brought in a number of symbols into the memorial that are meaningful in different ways to different people,” shared Trautmann. “The circle brings to mind circles for gathering, for storytelling, for dance, the cycles of life, the movement of the planets and the stars. He brought in the four elements- fire which he says represents strength, courage, endurance, and comfort. Water which represents cleansing, purification, and prayer. The Earth that provides people with everything they need and then the winds are the air that will carry people's memory and prayers and thoughts into the heavens. I think that it’s very abstract in a way but it's also very deeply meaningful and I hope that it is. We've received great responses from Native Veterans that we've spoken with and people who were involved in the consultations, so I hope that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do and really created a space that will be inclusive and meaningful to many different people.

“I definitely feel that Harvey brought to his design his own experience as a Native veteran and as someone who grew up in this tradition of service,” continued Trautmann. “He talked about being aware of older Veterans as he was growing up and of their roles in the community. I think that he was able to bring all of those experiences to his design and to interpret this in a way that would have been difficult for others to be able to do. I think that's part of what makes his design so meaningful and so perfect in that it just really creates the kind of space that people wanted to see, this gathering space.”

In September 2019, the NMAI held a groundbreaking ceremony and announced their plans for the dedication ceremony, which was slated for this Veterans Day. The museum planned a Veterans procession, which due to the pandemic, will happen when it is safe to do so.

“We don't see this memorial as being completed, being a project that we’re done with and we're moving on,” shared Trautmann. “It's going to be, as Kevin Gover has talked about, a forever project for the museum. We will continue to publish articles, to hold programs and exhibitions, to program in different ways around this memorial so that we can keep telling this story because it’s a story that is still happening and there are still so many different stories to be told. This is really just beginning, in a lot of ways, rather than kind of the conclusion of a project. It's something that we will continue to work with and tell the story for decades and decades to come.”

The memorial is now among the many Veterans memorials located right on the National Mall, nestled on the northeast corner of 3rd street and Jefferson in Washington D.C.

“You know, when I returned home from Vietnam, my family had a ceremony for me and had a blessing for me,” said Pratt in the memorial’s opening video on the NMAI website. “And when I think of this memorial, that’s the way I feel—that people that come here, that they’re going to be blessed and healed. And they will think about their family, and the family will think about the Veterans, and this will become a place of power. And that’s what I hope this place does for our Veterans.”

For more information on the National Museum of the American Indian or the National Native American Veterans Memorial,