New Memorial on the National Mall honors Native veterans who served the nation
Harvey Phillip Pratt is an artist from Oklahoma, a Vietnam veteran, and a member of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe nations. In 2018, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian chose his design for a veterans' memorial, which will be dedicated on Veterans' Day.
Pratt says he chose concepts that he hoped would be universal to the nearly 600 recognized tribes of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, as well as Native Hawaiians.
"I can reach these tribes through circles and pathways and cardinal points and sacred colors and song," Pratt said.
After a two-year pandemic delay, Native American veterans are gathering in Washington, D.C., this Veterans Day to dedicate the space Pratt designed.
At the end of a winding stone path from the museum, the ground is marked by concentric granite rings with entry points in the four cardinal directions. War songs can play over speakers incorporated into the structure. The inner ring is also a bench, surrounding a pool of water in an intricately carved stone drum. In the middle of the pool, a giant steel circle stands on its edge, with a flaming torch at its base.
"A fire in the big steel circle, which is a hole in the sky where the Creator lives," Pratt said. "And, and we have the Earth and the air. And I thought those are things that we all use, sacred fires, sacred water."
Pratt hopes Native visitors will use these elements in healing and commemoration ceremonies at the memorial.
Years ago, Pratt said, many tribes would not let their warriors back into the community after they came back from fighting. They needed help first.
"The medicine people went out and prayed over them blessed them and cleansed them," Pratt said. "Indian people were treating PTSD a long time ago. They went out and talked to these men and women and put them in a right frame of mind and then they let them into the camp. ... When I came home from Vietnam, we had the same ceremonies for me."
Fourteen-foot steel lances stand at each of the cardinal directions, with rings so visitors can tie-on prayer cloths.
"You can say a prayer into that cloth for your veterans or for the family or for someone who's passed. And when the wind blows, that prayer goes out every time it shakes that prayer cloth," says Pratt.
"Unfortunately in American society, for the most part, American Indians are pretty invisible," says Cynthia Chavez Lamar, who directs the museum. "The memorial is one way to represent, to make us visible."
Chavez Lamar is a member of the San Felipe Pueblo tribe, and the first Native woman to head a Smithsonian museum. The memorial is for natives to come and celebrate, but also to inform the public. She says many Americans don't know that American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the military at higher rates than any other group, despite a painful history.
"We've lost lands, we've been disenfranchised in different ways, but at the end of the day, we're gonna fight for this country," says Chavez Lamar. "I'm just thankful that the museum is able to do a little part to honor that service and to pay respect to that sacrifice they've made."
Harvey Pratt says the memorial celebrates warriors who defended their land and their people.
"This is Indian country, regardless of who says they own it. It will be Indian country forever, in my mind," says Pratt.
"And a lot of Indians think the same way. Their blood is spilt all over this land, and we have spilt Native American blood all over this Earth defending this land and we will continue to defend it," he said.
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