With Congress’ passage of the Native American Veterans’ Memorial Amendments Act late last year and President Barack Obama’s signature of the legislation into law, American Indian advocates are now focusing on the next steps in making the honoring place for Indian veterans a reality. Kevin Gover, the Pawnee director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., where the memorial will ultimately be located, recently shared the background behind this long-awaited plan, and he gave insight into what needs to happen for it to finally be built.
Were you surprised that legislation allowing for the building of a Native American veterans’ memorial passed at the end of 2013?
I was surprised because we hadn’t heard of any activity since the House committee hearing last spring. And then all of the sudden, in a matter of days, it cleared the committee, cleared the House, cleared the Senate, and then landed on the president’s desk. I guess the powers that be got together and had a plan for making this happen.
In the Senate, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) played a big role in getting the bill through, and in the House, Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), one of two Native Americans in Congress, played a big role. Were you happy to see the bipartisan support?
I’m always happy to see any member step up to do something in the interest of Native people. It was especially nice to see that these two newer members of Congress took an interest here.
Do you think we’ll see Rep. Mullin engage more on Native issues?
Oh, I have no way to know that, of course, but I do know that not only did he do this bill, he worked very hard during our recent event honoring the code talkers from the various tribes. He made a point in participating in that and making sure the tribes knew how important he thought that was.
The authorizing legislation for this memorial originally passed in 1994—why did it take so long for this next step to happen?
There were odd provisions in the authorizing legislation that said the memorial had to be within the structure of the museum and that NMAI could not raise money for it—only the National Congress of American Indians [NCAI] could do that. I can only guess that maybe at the time, the thinking was that NMAI had a lot on its plate, having just opened a museum and cultural center in New York and then looking forward to building the NMAI on the National Mall, so maybe this was seen at the time as an extra challenge. Those two things have now been accomplished, and we can really give a project like this a great deal of attention.
Any idea why Congress wanted the memorial located within the museum? Did they not really know how much land would be available at the NMAI in Washington?
I think that may have been part of it. I also think that any memorial of that type may end up involving the National Capital Planning Commission and other review boards that maybe they were trying to avoid.
Have you thought about where you’d like to see the memorial placed?
The first step is for us to get together with NCAI and make a plan for how we are going to carry out this project. It’s still a joint project, but NCAI has been relieved of those fundraising responsibilities. Clearly we need some sort of advisory committee consisting of Native leaders, Native veterans, perhaps artists or architects or engineers to advise us on the process going forward. I do walk around the grounds and sort of imagine what it could look like, but we want to leave that open for a consultation process. We don’t have a specific spot in mind; pretty much the entirety of the outdoor grounds is available.
Do you know how much this is going to cost?
We won’t know until we have a winning design. We’re looking at six figures at least just to conduct a design competition because we can’t use any of our federal staff to do this. It’s going to have to be done entirely through contractors and through employees of the Smithsonian trusts. Once we have a winning design, then we can start thinking seriously about what it’s going to cost to build. The cost will be a factor in selecting the winning design.
Is the fundraising process going to be difficult?
You know, you never know. It will require a lot of effort, and we, as always, rely on the generosity of the Indian nations and the people who believe in them. I do believe that this is going to be a very popular idea, and that we will be able to raise the funds.
What are some of the philosophical challenges in building a memorial of this type?
We really want the Native veterans’ community to be on board and to help us think through what it is that we’re memorializing. There are very complex issues around Indians who serve in the U.S. military. For example, what about the Indians who fought the U.S. military? Is this a memorial to them as well? How do we think about that, and how do we ask a designer to capture those kinds of complexities? We really need the veterans to help us think about those kinds of issues.
How long is all this going to take?
What I said to Congressman Young (R-Alaska) when he asked that question is that I can’t imagine it taking less than three years, and I certainly hope that it won’t take more than five. This project is important to me. I have a lot of family that has served in the military. It’s a labor of love in a lot of ways. So we will go at it with great enthusiasm.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.