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November/December 2017

National Museum of the American Indian

Forging a Vision: The National Native American Veterans Memorial

After more than twenty years of planning, a memorial to honor the service and sacrifice of a significant group of veterans, including many of the Vietnam War, is finally on track and about to get rolling.
On Veterans Day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) issued an open call for designs of a memorial to all Native Americans—Indians, Alaskans, and Hawaiians—who have borne the battle for the United States, dating back to the Revolutionary War. And for a comparatively small demographic, there have been many.

According to Herman J. Viola, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History: “Forty-four thousand Native Americans served in World War II; the entire population of Native Americans was less than 350,000 at the time. They are Purple Heart recipients and Bronze Star medal honorees. Many have been recognized with the Medal of Honor.”

The percentage of Native Americans serving relative to their total population is greater than that of any other ethnic group in the country. For instance, one in eight Native Americans—12.5 percent—served not only in World War II but also in the Vietnam War, most as volunteers, compared to about 2 percent of the Caucasian population, according to statistics from the VA, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the International World History Project.

The idea of serving in the armed forces and also honoring that service “is embedded in Native American culture,” said Kevin Gover, director of the NMAI and a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. “At the start of any tribal event, there is a ritual associated with honoring veterans of the past and those still living. At a pow-wow, for example, the entry into the dance ground is led by veterans and the American flag.”

Some may ask why Native Americans would fight for a government that had seized their lands, waged war on their people, confined them to reservations, tried to extinguish their culture, and broke many of its promises.

“The reasons are complex,” read a recent exhibit display at the NMAI. “For thousands of years, American Indians have protected their communities and lands. A warrior’s traditional role, however, involved more than fighting enemies. Warriors cared for people and helped in any time of difficulty. They would do anything to ensure their people’s survival, including laying down their lives. Many American Indians view service in the U.S. armed forces as a continuation of the warrior’s role in Native cultures.”

Many served with distinction and in more than one war. Pascal Cleatus Poolaw of the Kiowa Nation, for example, served in the U.S. Army in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He received forty-two medals and citations, making him the most decorated American Indian soldier in history.

Soon, Poolaw and tens of thousands of other Native American veterans will have a national memorial in their honor. The design competition that opened November 11 runs to January 9, 2018. A jury of experts will select up to five submissions as finalists to be developed in greater detail. The winning design will be announced on July 4. The completed memorial is scheduled to be unveiled on Veterans Day 2020.

Some have thought such a day might never come.


Congress originally passed legislation for a national memorial to Native American veterans in 1994. The memorial was to be placed inside the NMAI, then under development. But the bill had two severely limiting stipulations—no federal funds could be used for the memorial, and only the National Congress of American Indians was allowed to raise funds. No one connected with the NMAI could raise money.

As a result, the project languished. When Gover became NMAI Director in 2007, “Nothing was happening with it,” he said. “I was unaware the [congressional] authorization even existed. I didn’t know it for quite a while afterward, too. Nobody was assigned to work on it. It was just sitting there.”

No money at all appeared to have been raised. “If the National Congress of American Indians was ever aware of that responsibility, they were no longer aware of it,” Gover said. “They weren’t doing anything, and their leadership had changed several times since the ’94 legislation.”

James Locklear/Lumbee TribeGover noted another problem with the legislation—the part stating the memorial had to be inside the museum. “Space is precious inside, and space for the memorial wasn’t part of the original architecture.” Any available space wouldn’t be able to accommodate a tribute of appreciable size.

Efforts at memorials, however, were underway elsewhere. One was for a Native American veterans memorial at the veterans cemetery in Riverside, Calif. Two more involved a memorial to Native American veterans of the Vietnam War, one in Wisconsin, the other to be placed near The Wall in Washington, D.C. So far, only the memorial in Wisconsin has been built.

Gover surmised that, because of these other efforts, Congress had not been too concerned about progress on the NMAI memorial. At least not until 2011, when Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) assumed leadership of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. One of the first hearings he called was for a briefing about NMAI programs for Native American veterans, in particular the national memorial authorized in 1994.

At Sen. Akaka’s request, Gover testified at the hearing, explaining why there had been no progress. “Sen. Akaka sort of smiled and asked, ‘If we were to resolve those problems with the statute, would you build the memorial?’ And my answer was, ‘Yes, of course,’ ” Gover said.

By 2012 the committee amended the legislation to allow the NMAI to raise funds and to place the memorial outside on the museum’s grounds.

Since then, NMAI’s initial efforts have focused on consulting with tribal commissions, spreading the word about the planned memorial, and gathering thoughts, comments, and suggestions. To date, the museum has engaged in thirty-five tribal consultations and spoken with some 1,200 tribal leaders, members, and veterans, according to Rebecca Trautmann, NMAI’s project manager for the memorial.

In addition, NMAI has raised some $1.7 million toward a goal of $15 million to fund the design and construction of the memorial. Gover said most have been small contributions—$20, $40, $100—from individuals, along with a few larger ones from tribal nations. But fundraising has essentially been a part-time effort. The major push for funds is on the horizon.

“When we have a design in hand, that will help give donors an idea of exactly what they’re giving toward,” said Trautmann. Up to now, donors have been contributing to an idea they support. “When we have something we can show people—this is what it’s going to look like—that’s when we’re going at fundraising full time,” said Gover.

Managing the juried design competition is Donald Stastny, an award-winning architect and planner who has overseen dozens of national and international competitions, including three major open competitions—for the World War I memorial in Washington, the memorial to the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the memorial to the passengers of United Flight 93 who fought their hijackers before crashing on September 11, 2001. Stastny has also worked extensively with Native American tribes and bands.


Despite his extensive experience, though, he’s never been involved with any competition quite like this one. “There are so many layers to it,” Stastny said. “In Native American culture, military service is almost a rite of passage. How do you create a memorial to generations and generations of people fulfilling a cultural responsibility?”

While there are no specific style dictates that designers must follow—such as that the memorial should be realistic or abstract—several points need to be taken into consideration.

Illustration: Lou Spirito“It has to be respectful, of course,” Stastny said, “but you also need to realize you’re putting this on the National Mall. How will it fit in there? And then how will it fit in with the Smithsonian Institution’s educational mission? You also need to consider that part of the Native American culture is to be contemplative. How do you build a memorial that can close out the world around you? That’s easy on a reservation, but in downtown Washington?”

Perhaps the most unique aspect to be considered: In Native American cemeteries, visitors often leave behind something—usually small, like a ribbon or a special stone. How might a design incorporate that in such a way that non-Native Americans will understand?

“If I were to write the most complex design problem for designers,” Stastny said, “this would be it. I’m very anxious to see what we get.”

That’s not just the professional in him talking. “To be able to take this vast experience I have with design competitions, along with my work with Native American culture, this project touches my heart in the deepest way. It’s the most important one I’ve ever taken on.”

He’s not alone.

“My grandfather and his brother were World War II veterans,” Gover said. “I never met his brother because he was killed late in the war. My grandfather passed away in the ’90s, but the flag the family received in his honor is treated as a sacred object. It’s brought out only for special occasions. And whenever it’s raised to fly over the reservation, there’s a Pawnee song sung that was composed especially in his honor.

“There’s no Pawnee family that doesn’t have veterans. I’m one of the few Pawnee males who isn’t a veteran. But I’m helping them tell their story, so it’s a big deal. Every project we do here is fascinating to me, but this one has a personal dimension to it.”




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