National Native American Veterans Memorial artist explains his design
Washington is filled with statues and monuments. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one. Bronze or marble statues of famous people stand on stone platforms in parks all over the city.
But Native people know a monument, such as the planned National Native American Veterans Memorial, is merely a reminder of the true monument, which is created within the human heart. And this true monument isn’t built with a chisel and a hammer. It is built with ceremony.
The idea came in a dream
Memorial designer Harvey Pratt, of Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux descent, explained in an interview last fall with Indian Country Today how he came to realize the monument needed to be a place for ceremony instead of just a sculpture to look at.
“My family has always been very traditional. My brothers are all Sundance men, so I've been around those ceremonies and they're important to us. That's what I thought. I need to put all of these elements into something that people can go to, not just to look at a statue, but to go there and feel the strength and the power of that place.”
In 1994, Congress passed H.R. 2135, the Native American Veterans' Memorial Establishment Act, which authorized construction of the memorial at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It specified that no federal funds be spent on the memorial and only the National Congress of American Indians could solicit contributions for its creation.
These restrictions made it difficult to raise money. So in 2013, the legislation was amended to allow the National Museum of the American Indian to participate in raising funds and also authorized them to hold a competition to select a design.
Starting in 2015, the museum’s memorial advisory committee held 35 “community consultations” all across the country looking for input about the design. In 2016 they visited Oklahoma where Pratt lives.
“I really wasn't interested in it,” Pratt said. “I joined a circle of the meetings that the Smithsonian produced, sending people around the country. I went to two of them here in Oklahoma, kinda heard what people were talking about and I actually went home and thought about it. Then I dreamed about it.”
Pratt dreamed of a place where Native Americans from any tribe could come and perform ceremonies to honor their relatives who fought in the U.S. military.
‘The hole in the sky where the Creator lives’
Pratt’s design is based on the traditional Native American motif of the circle. An outer ring of red bricks represents the “Red Road,” and within that, four quarter-circle sections represent the four directions and the four elements. Each section features the insignias of the five branches of the military: the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines. Stone benches on the inside of these sections provide seats where visitors can sit and meditate or pray.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a circular pool of water that surrounds a drum made of stone. An eternal flame burns atop the drum and a glimmering, polished metal ring, approximately 15 feet tall, stands vertically above it. Metal lances where visitors can tie prayer flags accent the ring.
“That big vertical circle that stands in the middle, I call it the hole in the sky where the Creator lives. When you pray, that prayer goes through there and the Creator receives it and he sends his gift back down through that vertical circle, that hole in the sky for you. He blesses you.”
The museum received 120 designs from their nationwide search. They narrowed this down to five finalists and in June of 2018, they chose Pratt’s design. But the journey to this destination began decades before.
The first Indian in Vietnam
Pratt joined the Marines in 1962 and in 1963 was shipped to Da Nang as part of a special recon unit. He helped recover fighter pilots who’d been shot down as well as downed helicopter and spotter plane pilots. It was the kind of work he felt Indians were supposed to do, rescuing fellow warriors and protecting the base from intruders.
“I looked around and I was the only Indian in that platoon. So I thought, ‘You know what? I'm probably the first Native American combat marine into Vietnam, in 1963.’”
Pratt returned to the states toward the end of his three-year enlistment. He planned on earning a degree and then reenlisting as an officer. But his path led to a career in law enforcement instead and he worked for the Midwest City Police Department for seven years and then for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for 45 years.
He is well known in Oklahoma law enforcement circles as a forensic artist. His composite drawings and soft-tissue post mortem drawings based on photographs of human remains have helped identify victims in many high-profile murder cases. Some of the more well-known cases he’s worked on include the Green River Killer, Ted Bundy, and the I-5 Killer.
But his design for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which he calls the “Warriors Circle of Honor” is perhaps his most ambitious and influential work. Instead of a statue or monument, you look up to like most of the monuments in Washington, D.C., Pratt’s design draws viewers inside the work and makes them actively participate in its effect.
Its design is open enough so that ceremonies from any tribe and tradition can be performed there, blessing the location and over time making it powerful. It is like a spiritual container that he hopes will grow into a location of pilgrimage for those who want to remember the thousands of Native American soldiers who honored the warrior traditions of their tribes and fought to protect the land of our ancestors.
“No matter how you feel about how our country has treated Native people, it’s important to honor all our Native warriors," Pratt said. "They fought to protect the land we live on. That’s what warriors do.”
Groundbreaking for the memorial is scheduled for September of 2019 and the dedication will occur in November of 2020 on Veterans Day.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.