Tribes support creating Native veteran statue on National Mall

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, June 13, 2013

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A grassroots effort to memorialize American Indian veterans on the National Mall is gaining momentum.

The effort, backed by individual tribes and the National Congress of American Indians, calls for a statue on the National Mall in recognition of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians who have served over the years.

The group opposes Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz's bill that would give control of the statue to the National Museum of the Native American, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

"Location matters," said Jefferson Begay, Navajo, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the American Indian Veterans Memorial Initiative. "We want a memorial on the National Mall. American Indian veterans should be commemorated there, alongside our comrades in arms."

A push for a memorial can be traced to the 1980s when the well-known Three Soldiers sculpture was unveiled near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The statue depicts three American soldiers: one white, one black and one Hispanic. The Hispanic figure was meant to represent American Indians and other minorities not specifically memorialized.

That explanation was not satisfying for tribes or individual veterans, especially given the records of Native warriors, who have enlisted in the Armed Forces at a rate much greater than any other ethnicity.

Steven Bowers, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Seminole Tribe in Florida, is spearheading the effort to erect a new memorial in recognition of the tens of thousands of Natives who have served in the military, including 42,000 during the Vietnam era alone.

"We're not on the mall," Bowers said. "We haven't been recognized."

Schatz's legislation corrects a quirk in a 1994 bill that approved construction of such a memorial but didn't provide funding for it. The bill Schatz introduced May 23 gives the National Museum of the American Indian flexibility to raise funds for the memorial.

The proposal backed by Bowers and the American Indian Veterans Memorial Initiative calls for a statue to be placed at the entrance of a planned education center at the Vietnam memorial. The location is more prominent and would be seen by millions of Americans every year, Begay said.

A statue at the museum might be counterproductive and send the message to Americans that Natives are "relics," he said. He called the controversy over location "political" and said a statue of a Native soldier should be free from personal agenda.

"I think politicians are not listening to the real American Indian veterans who want to be represented on the mall," he said. "They aren't listening to the voice of the Indian solider."

Begay's great-uncles served in World War I, before they were even considered U.S. citizens, and his grandfather was a scout for the U.S. Army in a conflict against the Hopi tribe.

"My family has served in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq," he said. "My family has been involved in all the wars. I want to be able to honor them, my family members, on the mall, just like other families honor their veterans on the mall."

More than 100 tribes have indicated support of the initiative, Begay said. Those involved already are talking about what the memorial should look like.

"We want a memorial that will depict all the tribes," he said. "It has to show Native Americans, Alaskans and Hawaiians in a way that shows all the individuals."

The memorial likely will show a soldier with a helmet and an eagle feather, Begay said. The eagle feather, if done tastefully, can represent all the Native nations.

Schatz's bill was referred to a Senate committee, where it will be considered before it goes before the Senate as a whole. According to a legislation tracking service, the bill has only a 6 percent chance of being enacted.

That could be good news for the American Indian Veterans Memorial Initiative, which aims to raise private funds and erect the statue on its own terms – on the National Mall.

An estimated 200,000 American Indians have served in the Armed Forces. They were involved in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, and Begay believes their patriotism and service should be rewarded.

"We volunteer for the military because our sacred lands are within this country," he said. "This is more than our homeland. It's not a chunk of real estate. We're fighting for Mother Earth."