Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Unlike other war memorials in D.C., the National Native American Veterans Memorial does not highlight a specific conflict, but rather an entire people.
The circle at the center of the next memorial to U.S. veterans represents the cycles of life, nature, the seasons, and the elements. The circle is also the anchor for a special, and highly unique, stage in Washington, D.C.: a space for ceremonies for hundreds of different Native tribes and nations.
Fire and water frame the symbolic infrastructure for the memorial. The circular steel sculpture rises from a central pedestal, which is shaped like a drum; the drum works as a fountain, whose waters will bless sacred ceremonies. A fire at the base of the circle will be lit for Veterans Day and other holidays.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian just announced the winner of the international design contest to create its new monument. The National Native American Veterans Memorial will honor the military service of Native American soldiers who have served in every conflict in U.S. history. The memorial is meant to be an active site for healing, prayer, and storytelling, says Harvey Pratt, the memorial’s designer. The concept is unlike anything else that’s currently on the National Mall.
A jury selected Pratt’s design—dubbed the “Warriors’ Circle of Honor”—from five finalist entries, which in turn emerged from a pool of more than 120 contest submissions. Pratt’s design squares a difficult design brief. The memorial needed to facilitate a potent and reflective experience for veterans and their family members. But it also needed to be legible and meaningful across many different cultures and conflicts.
For his design, Pratt, an Arapaho and Cheyenne Marine Corps veteran, says that he relied on a handful of symbols and conceits to build something essential and, he hopes, transportive. “Of the 650 tribes, we’re all the same, but we’re different,” Pratt says. “We all use those elements, but maybe all a little bit differently.”
Unlike other war memorials in D.C., the National Native American Veterans Memorial does not highlight a specific conflict, but rather an entire people. Many peoples, in fact. The memorial honors all Native American veterans—including American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians—from the Revolutionary War to the present, across all branches of service.
“That’s already quite a challenge, for any design to be meaningful to all of those groups, and to honor all of them,” says Rebecca Trautmann, project curator for the National Native American Veterans Memorial. “It also needs to be a timeless memorial that will honor veterans going forward into the future.”
Concentric circles of golden Kasota limestone—the same material used to build the museum—will serve as benches for reflection and participation. Seals for the five (current) military branches will be carved inside one of the rings. Pratt’s wife, Gina, and son, Nathan, collaborated on the design. Hans E. Butzer and Torrey Butzer of Butzer Architects and Urbanism—the firm that designed the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum—will help the Pratts realize the memorial.
One of the design’s most important features is a series of four lances fixed to cardinal points around the memorial’s limestone rings. These lances will serve as focal points for ceremonies: Veterans, family members, and tribal leaders may attach prayer clothes to these lances. Pratt says that most nations have songs that they will want to play or perform for gatherings at the memorial, from flag songs to veterans songs to victory songs.
“Most Natives will recognize those elements and will take advantage of them and use them. They can spend some time in there, and make promises to the Creator,” Pratt says. “’I’m going to tie a prayer cloth for my nephew, who’s in Iraq, and I’ll say this prayer and promise to do something for the next year.’ It becomes something. It becomes a place of power, a place of strength, a place of comfort.”
Trautmann says that the museum hopes to break ground on the memorial in September 2019 and unveil the finished project in late 2020. In the meantime, she is preparing a book and exhibit to dovetail with the memorial’s opening. Artifacts that will be shown in that exhibit include a ceremonial drum used for a powwow held near Fallujah in 2004, as well as ceremonial jingle dresses used by active service members.
The National Native American Veterans Memorial is more than two decades in coming. Congress passed legislation authorizing the memorial back in 1994, well before the National Museum of the American Indian was realized. A national search for a memorial designer began in earnest in 2013, when the museum, in concert with the National Congress of American Indians, convened an advisory committee of about 30 Native veterans and leaders. They went on to hold consultations with Native veterans and their communities in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Those meetings informed the central motivation behind the project: namely, to build an inclusive and healing memorial.
More than 140,000 veterans identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian; today, more than 31,000 Native men and women serve in active duty. In proportion to their population, Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. Beyond a few very visible contributions—like the Code Talkers, who helped send coded messages in Native languages in both world wars—the immense contributions of Native peoples to the national security have gone mostly unrecognized.
“Washington, D.C., has sacred places all over,” Pratt says. “Different memorials, they’re all sacred to the American people. I’m so proud to have the National Native Americans Veterans Memorial included with the rest of those sacred places, a place where people come to be healed and be comforted.”