By Jennifer Schultz
Visitors to our nation’s capital can add a new landmark to their must-see list.
The National Native American Veterans Memorial will be unveiled to the public this Veterans Day on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. The occasion marks the first time the distinguished service of Native Americans in every branch of the U.S. military will be recognized on a national scale.
More than two decades in the making, visitors approach the memorial from a winding path and can enter vietnama circular seating area from one of the four sacred, cardinal directions.
Looking up, they will see an elevated stainless-steel circle balanced on an intricately carved stone drum. Water flows from the center and a fire can be lit during special ceremonies. There are also four vertical lances with bronze feathers and tips where visitors can tie prayer cloths. The seals of the five branches of the U.S. armed forces are on a wall nearby. The sculpture was designed by Harvey Pratt, a 79-year-old artist, Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. His design, titled “Warriors Circle of Honor,” was the unanimous winner out of 400 submissions.
More than 100 years after the first Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day) celebrations, many Americans may be unaware of the exceptional service performed by American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native veterans.
Despite a history of difficult and complicated government-to-government relationships with the United States, these men and women have served and continue to serve at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. According to the Department of Defense, roughly 21,000 of the 2.1 million current active duty, Reserve and Guard members are Native American or Alaska Native, and a 2019 Census Bureau survey identified almost 143,000 Native veterans (0.8%), a sizeable number of them women. Put another way, Native Americans and Alaska Natives serve in the military at five times the national average.
Among the 574 federally recognized tribes, each with its own cultures, traditions and stances on war, military service remains consistent. Native Americans have participated in every major conflict, dating back to their service as auxiliary troops and scouts during the Revolutionary War. Fast forward 200 years, when 42,000 Native Americans, more than 90% of them volunteers, fought in Vietnam. And since 9/11, nearly 19% of Native Americans have joined the military, keeping the warrior tradition alive.
Native American warriors have a range of motives for joining the U.S. military, including patriotism, pride, courage, practicality and spirituality, all tied to an enduring respect for tribal, familial and national traditions.
Dan King is one such veteran. A member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, King served 4 1/2 years as a U.S. Army Ranger, 173rd Airborne 75th Ranger Regiment. Reflecting on his service, King said, “I am alive, but at times in my life, I died. You have never lived ‘til you almost died. For those who fought for it, life has a flavor.” At the same time, he recalls wishing he could return to Vietnam, saying “when you think back, the torment and turmoil here in the United States … I felt safer over there than I did here.”
King has worked tirelessly to advocate for Native American veterans and their families in the decades since through his work as president of the Wisconsin Indian Veterans Association – Oneida Chapter and co-chairman of the National Congress of American Indians Veterans Committee. He gives presentations to educational institutions and nonprofits to raise awareness of veterans issues and supports fellow veterans to tell their own story. He is a long-time member of the Tribal Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee and the Nuclear Energy Tribal Working Group, two groups staffed by NCSL under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy.
A number of states have enacted legislation to recognize the courage and sacrifice of Native American veterans. In Maine, the legislature has designated June 21 of each year as Native American Veterans Day. Minnesota lawmakers authorized the placement of a commemorative plaque on the Capitol grounds in 2013, and South Dakota created a tribal veteran license plate in 2017 (SB 73). In addition, both California and Illinois have adopted resolutions in recent years recognizing the history and significance of the eagle staff, which is typically carried by Native American veterans.
Oregon passed legislation in 2017 directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to assist with the accreditation of tribal veterans representatives by the federal government, and with any veterans programs overseen by the tribes (SB 80). Before doing so, the law requires agency staff to consult with members of the tribe as to the needs of Native American veterans and approach the provision of aid with an understanding of cultural values and practices. The same year, Oregon added tribal governments to the list of eligible grantees under the Parks and Recreation Department's program to construct and restore memorials honoring veterans and war memorials located on public property (HB 2405).
Aside from legislative action, several state department of veterans affairs, including Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, partner with tribal veterans service officers that provide outreach, advocacy and guidance to ensure that Native American veterans, including those that live in rural areas, receive the state and federal benefits available to them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides a wide range of benefits, including disability compensation, pension, education and training, health care, home loans, insurance, vocational rehabilitation and employment and burial. The VA also runs a Native American Direct Loan Program that helps veterans buy, build or improve a home on federal trust land. The VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations consults with tribal governments to develop partnerships that enhance access to these benefits by veterans and their families.
Native American veterans also find a great deal of support and recognition from tribes and tribal organizations. The members of Native American Women Warriors, for example, honor the contributions of fellow female veterans by participating in Color Guard presentations, powwows and other ceremonial events across the country.
Jennifer Schultz is a program principal in NCSL's Energy, Environment and Transportation Program and staffs the NCSL Military and Veterans Affairs Task Force.