First Americans are also first in America’s service

Few realize that Native Americans have served our country in every conflict since the Revolutionary War—and in greater numbers per capita than any other group. That’s about to change.


Kiowa memorial

Eagle-feather war bonnets adorn U.S. military uniform jackets at a Ton-Kon-Gah (Black Leggings Society) ceremonial, held annually to honor Kiowa tribal veterans. Near Anadarko, Oklahoma, 2006. (National Museum of the American Indian)

On Veterans Day, Saturday, Nov. 11, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will begin accepting entries for designs for a National Native American Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. The international competition is open to all; architects, artists, designers, students and anyone else who wants to submit a design. Entries will be accepted until 3 p.m. EST Jan. 9, 2018.

Congress commissioned the National Museum of the American Indian in 2012 to honor Native American servicemen and women with a prominent memorial on the grounds of the museum located on the National Mall, a place that draws nearly 24 million visitors annually to the nation’s capital. Since then, the museum has been working with Native American veterans, tribal leaders, historians and cultural experts to consult on the needs that the memorial should express.

In 2015, the museum established an advisory committee composed of Native American leaders and veterans. Co-chaired by former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) and Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, the museum began consulting American Indian Nations across the country to gather input and support. Campbell, a Korean War veteran, is one of the few Native Americans to serve in the U.S. Congress.

“This is a tremendously important effort to recognize Native Americans’ service to this nation,” Campbell said. “Like so many others, I was compelled to serve to honor the warrior tradition that is inherent to most Native American societies—the pillars of strength, honor, pride, devotion and wisdom.”

In 2017, the museum selected a blue-ribbon jury of Native and non-Native artists, designers, scholars, veterans and others to conduct a two-stage design competition for the memorial. During the first phase, the jury will meet in session and select up to five finalists. The finalists will be announced Jan. 25, 2018, and advance to the second stage of the design competition.

The jury members are:

  • Larry Ulaaq Ahvakana (Inupiaq), artist, Ahvakana Fine Art
  • Stephanie Birdwell (Cherokee), director, Veterans Affairs, Office of Tribal Government Relations
  • Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director emerita, Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art
  • Edwin Fountain, general counsel, American Battle Monuments Commission
  • Mark Kawika McKeague (Native Hawaiian), director of cultural planning, Group 70 International Inc.
  • Brian McCormack (Nez Perce), principal landscape architect, McCormack Landscape Architecture
  • Lillian Pitt (Wasco/Yakima/Warm Springs), artist
  • Herman Viola, curator emeritus, Smithsonian
  • Kevin Gover (Pawnee), alternate juror, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

The memorial is scheduled to open Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2020. The museum’s exhibition, Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation’s Armed Forces, will continue to travel around the country through the 2020 dedication.

Two men in jumpsuits and eagle feather war bonnets stand in front of military plane

Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 10 November 2017
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