For Native Americans who wear, or wore, a military uniform, the consensus feeling is that every day should be Veterans Day.
That was the prevalent thought on November 14 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix where hundreds gathered for the opening ceremonies of the American Indian Veterans National Memorial.
“What we do here today is the beginning of a lifelong honoring of brave American Indian men and women who have answered the call to defend our nation,” acting museum chief executive officer Lee Peterson told the crowd. “This memorial is the culmination of dreams and a willingness of many to take a vision and turn it into the concrete and bronze reality you see before you.”
The memorial consists of several sculptures by acclaimed Native artists Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994) and blind veteran Michael Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo). Houser’s towering 10-foot-tall, 2,000 pound sculpture Unconquered II honors service and sacrifice spanning more than three centuries and is the last piece he created. Naranjo’s two smaller works (He’s My Brother and The Gift) accompany the larger sculpture.
“Since being blinded in Vietnam in 1968, I create my sculptures by touch,” Naranjo said, “and I invite people, especially children, to appreciate my indestructible artwork by touching it as well as viewing it. Despite my situation, it was an honor to serve and I’m fortunate to have come home because so many did not. All wounded warriors carry their scars, their badges of courage, and it’s great to be appreciated and thanked because it wasn’t an easy job.”
Surrounding these creative concepts are descriptive panels that begin with these words: "The story of American Indian Warriors begins before there was a United States of America and the Warrior Tradition continues rich and strong today. Honoring Warrior leaders is also a tradition that is an integral part of the story. In this spirit, Heard Museum joins with those who keep the honoring tradition and tell the stories of bravery and sacrifice."
Another panel contains the poem Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep (penned 80 years ago) that has been set to music and translated into many languages, comforting many military families as it did at the memorial service for Army Specialist Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat on foreign soil.
“It’s a great day to be a veteran and to those of you who have worn the uniform, thank you for your service,” said retired Army Colonel Joey Strickland, Choctaw, Director of the Arizona Department of Veterans Services and Master of Ceremonies for the memorial introduction ceremony. “This memorial is long overdue. Native Americans have always stepped up to the plate when needed and we’re blessed and thankful for that. As the only Indian veterans services director in the U.S., the sacrifices my people have made for their country is never far from my mind.”
Department of Defense figures show that more than 22,000 enlisted service members and 1,300 officers on active duty are of American Indian heritage, making it the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to defend the country. While no war leaves its participants unscathed, the book American Indians and World War II notes: “This war, in which some 44,000 Native Americans served in the U.S. military, caused the greatest disruption of Indian life since the beginning of the reservation era because of its impact on the habits, views, and economic well-being of tribal members.”
One of those who defended his country is Medal of Honor recipient Lieutenant Michael Thornton, a retired Navy SEAL who spent four tours in Vietnam, one of only 15 U.S. Navy personnel to receive the Medal of Honor for heroic conduct during that conflict. Interesting to note that between 1869-1890, 16 Medals of Honor were awarded to those of Native descent. In World War II, that number was 5; in Korea, 4 medals were awarded, and three were presented in Vietnam. Thornton is the only living recipient of Native descent to wear the prestigious medallion.
“I stand here with chill bumps,” he said, noting, “This medal I wear so proudly isn’t mine—it belongs to every man and woman who has ever served this nation. You’re the true Americans. When the call to arms has come, Native Americans have been the first to stand up, to act, to move forward, and the first to keep our country safe and free.”
Listening intently to Thornton’s words were other decorated veterans in the crowd including two Navajo Code Talkers, retired WWII Marine Corps vet Joe Kellwood (who led the Pledge of Allegiance) and fellow Code Talker Arthur Hubbard (who turns 101 in January).
The structure itself is impressive—120 feet of concrete walls (nearly 90 cubic yards of specially-colored bronze concrete) and up to 15 feet tall. The memorial, designed by John Douglas Architects, was funded by a gift from TriWest Healthcare Alliance with construction services donated by Kitchell Contractors.
“We like short-term projects that are big in scope,” said David McIntyre, Jr., TriWest President and CEO of a company that provides healthcare for those who wear uniforms and their families. “This segment of our population—those of Native descent—is special and provides a remarkable example of service to country.”
Jefferson Begay, Navajo, himself a Vietnam veteran, represented Kitchell Contractors (the only contractor in America with an exclusive Native American division) at the opening ceremony: “ There’s a certain irony here that even though we were here before everybody else, we weren’t officially recognized as citizens of our own country until years later. I’m honored that our Native warriors are finally getting their own recognition. This is our Mother Earth where our sacred rivers and mountains are and our warriors have defended this country even before they were acknowledged as citizens.”
Several Arizona tribes have already contributed to a fund that will support the continuing maintenance of the memorial.