Native Americans have a long and proud history of service in the United States Armed Forces. Even before Indians were U.S. citizens, we fought in its wars, and since then, have participated in the Armed Services at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, even though our relationship with the United States can be somewhat conflicted. In spite of that, our service has long gone unmemorialized. But that is about to change.
According to Kevin Gover, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), by 2020, NMAI will host the National Native American Veterans Memorial—nearly 25 years after the Act of Congress that authorized it in 1994. Construction was delayed for a couple of reasons. One, the original legislation required the memorial be built inside the museum, and there was precious little space. Two, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) was appointed sole entity allowed to raise funds for it.
As a result, there was little movement on the effort until 2011, until now retired Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), who chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, called a hearing on the military service of Native American veterans at which Gover testified. In that hearing, Gover drew attention not only to the service of Native Americans, but to the fundraising showstoppers that the original legislation had imposed on it. Akaka ultimately introduced reparative legislation in that committee. When he retired in 2013, he left the effort without serious advocacy until Sen. Brian Shatz (D-HI) and Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) picked up the legislation and got it through the House Resources Committee, resulting in a new authorization passed in 2013.
"At that point NMAI began organizing itself to see how to do this," Gover recounted, and this time without restrictions on NMAI for raising the more than $15 million in funds that will likely be required to complete it or for its placement. And NMAI has been extremely diligent in its task, with former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) and Chickasaw Nation Lieutenant Governor Jefferson Keel holding 35 consultation meetings in 17 states to ask participants, "What do you want this to be, what's the message, what do you want to get across?" Gover said.
As a result, later this year NMAI will hold a juried competition open to all comers to design the memorial which will sit on the National Mall on NMAI grounds by 2020.
To assist the effort, retired FBI agent, and prominent community advocate Walter Lamar, member of the Blackfeet Nation, wanted to do something special. As part of the Pentagon's Force Protection Agency in 2016, he personally hoisted the flag above the Pentagon on July 4, 2016 in honor and in recognition of the Native American Veterans Memorial, and which he presented to Kevin Gover on Memorial Day 2017.
It was for Gover, who described it as, "Quite an honor to fly a flag in honor of the memorial which is an expression of the gratitude of the people of the United States to Native Americans. It's an honor to have it presented as a symbol of that."
Lamar said he "...[hoped] that the flag and certificate will be displayed in the museum and prompt people to support the design and build of that section of the museum.”
That said, as Lamar put it, "the contradictions are not lost on me that some Indians don't recognize it," given Native nations' complicated relationship with the United States.
"Tribes have an incredibly unique perspective from which to view the nation given the removal period and draconian military tactics to keep tribes on reservations. Even then, Indians have served in all branches with distinction. Imagine descendants of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 now serving in the same unit!" he said.
Lamar's hope is that "the memorial will belong to Native communities and will stand as a monument to the warrior spirit of the tribal nations...for the entire world to see. I can also imagine the museum greeting vets with love, warmth and comfort that they have so long deserved."
For both men, it's also important that Native Americans consider donating to the memorial to "have the pride of ownership.” Lamar strongly urged the community to recognize individual veterans by donating to the website dedicated to this cause.
"We don't have a lot of time to raise the money needed for the memorial," Gover lamented. By the time the design is chosen, there will be only two years to bring the project to its projected completion date.
"I'm looking forward to helping NMAI even though I'm not a vet, and I'm very motivated to do anything I can to help them," Lamar said.