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The Salt River Indian Community near Scottsdale, Arizona, will be opening a public memorial garden honoring the USS Arizona on February 22.

After veterans in the tribe had requested to fly a flag in honor of the USS Arizona, and later received a large section of the actual battleship, The USS Arizona Memorial Garden at Salt River was created to honor the veterans who died during the attacks of Pearl Harbor and who were aboard the USS Arizona that sank on December 7, 1941.

According to ETurbo news, the Salt River Indian Community became the recipient of a large part of the superstructure of the USS Arizona (BB-39), identified as the original Boat House. After receiving the section of the ship, the tribe worked to build the Memorial Gardens around it.

The Boat House section was part of the original memorial built at Pearl Harbor in 1951. It is the largest and only piece ever given to a tribal community.

How they got the Boat House

Since 2007, veterans and other members of Arizona’s Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community have been holding an annual ‘Breathing of the Flag Ceremony’ honoring an American flag representing the veterans that served in the military.

Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community Vice President Ricardo Leonard says eventually a member of the community wanted to ask for a flag off of the USS Arizona to pay further military respects.

Bushmaster member Joel Jefferson led the push to gain ownership of that flag on behalf of the community.

“Because no one had ever requested the flag from the USS Arizona … our American Legion Post 114 Bushmaster went to Hawaii and conducted a small memorial ceremony of respect involving the flag,”

After much back-and-forth communication, Legion Post #114 and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community were granted ownership.

O’odham Action News, wrote, “We had a lot of heroes, highly-decorated veterans that were in WWII and Jefferson wanted them to be remembered,” said fellow legion post member Thomas Jackson of the Huhugam IO Museum. “Having a USS Arizona Memorial flag helps us remember all veterans.”

“We were given that flag with the requirement that we conduct an annual ceremony on December 7th to remember all of those who gave their lives while in service to this country,” said Leonard. “Every year we open the flag and conduct what we call a radiant ceremony, presenting it to the four cardinal directions, and saying traditional prayers.”

That ceremony is a powerful one that builds emotion cumulatively and tribal members expressed continuing interest in the USS Arizona, making return trips from Arizona to the battleships watery resting place, repetitive trips that resulted in an offer involving the original Boat House, part of the memorial built at Pearl Harbor in 1951.

The Boat House Relic, and the garden built around it

The USS Arizona’s boat house represents the largest — and only — piece of the memorial to ever be given to a tribal community.

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Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community President Martin Harvier to note: “It is a great honor that the land of the O’odham, or Pima, and Piipaash, or Maricopa, will be the final resting place of the Boat House relic.”

The Boat House represents an integral part of the communities newly-built USS Arizona Memorial Gardens that honor military members who were aboard the ship during the attack (like SRPMIC member and former sailor Raymond Valenzuela who was in Pearl Harbor when the attack hit) as well as all military veterans who have served the country. The edifice is displayed at the edge of the lake and at the center of Gardens.

“The backstory,” says Leonard, “is that the majority of those on board the USS Arizona were coming back home from conflict for a well-deserved rest and recuperation leave. We lost a lot of our community members, as well as losses throughout all Indian nations during that world war and we wanted to continue to offer support to all veterans who have lost their lives in all conflicts.”

Discussions have been held and future plans are in the making for additional on-site memorials that will recognize those who fought in the Spanish American War, WWI, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East.

“We’re not finished yet,” says Leonard. “Hopefully there will be an end to conflicts, but until that happens, we’ll continue to put additions in the garden.

Light posts will represent lives lost

The opening was February 21st and housed between Salt River Fields at Talking Stick and Great Wolf Lodge Arizona, the gardens span the exact length and width of the USS Arizona with LED light posts representing those aboard during the attack. As each day ends, those columns emit a subtle glow that transforms the memorial at night representing each individual as a light that will stand the test of time.

Commemorative columns line pathways in the garden that each end at a flagpole representing individual branches of the U.S. military. Along the pathways are benches engraved with quotations from individuals who experienced firsthand the aerial attacks.

The public opening of the Gardens — open daily from dawn till dusk — coincides with Veterans Appreciation Day at Salt River Fields, also the opening day of baseball spring training.

Additional honors involving the USS Arizona (and the USS Oklahoma) are being planned by the U.S. Navy that has announced plans to commission a fast-attack nuclear submarine, one of nine new nuclear subs planned for the Navy, under the USS Arizona name.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modley announced the decision “to bring those hallowed names back into active-duty service. There is no greater honor than the building and commissioning into active service, two state-of-the-art warships carrying the spirit of those heroes of the Greatest Generation as they sail through a new maritime century.”

Those two subs are part of a $22 billion construction contract. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey called it “a proud day for Arizona as the USS Arizona name holds special meaning, a legacy that is beginning a new chapter.”

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Lee Allen is a longtime contributor to Indian Country Today who resides and works in Tucson, Arizona.