A new memorial for students visiting Washington, D.C. and the importance of who it represents.

It’s well known that the statues of the men that make up the United States Marine Corps Memorial (better known as the Iwo Jima memorial) represent actual soldiers who were part of the famous flag raising following American victory in the battle for the island.  It’s less well known that one of the men enshrined in bronze, Ira Hayes, was part of the Pima Indian Nation.  For years Hayes was one of the only tributes, however obscure, on a major memorial in Washington, D.C. to the service of Native Americans in American wars.  No longer is that the case.

After years of consideration and development, The National Native American Veteran’s Memorial opened on November 11th, 2020, Veteran’s Day.  For the first time on a national scale the many American Indians including Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians and Indigenous tribes in the contiguous United States are honored for their service in the U.S. military.  

The design of this long-awaited memorial seamlessly integrates aspects of American Indian history, culture and religion with their distinguished wartime service.  The official introduction by the Smithsonian:  

“An elevated stainless-steel circle balanced on an intricately carved stone drum, the design of the National Native American Veterans Memorial is simple and powerful, timeless and inclusive. The design incorporates water for sacred ceremonies, benches for gathering and reflection, and four lances where veterans, family members, tribal leaders, and others can tie cloths for prayers and healing. The memorial creates an interactive yet intimate space for gathering, remembrance, reflection, and healing. It welcomes and honors Native American veterans and their families, and educates the public about their extraordinary contributions.”

For the everyday tourist visiting some of the iconic memorials around the nation’s capital, it may be easy to miss the impact of Native Americans in America’s wars.  To start, American Indians have served and died for the American cause in every major conflict since the start of the American Revolution.  In World War I, Choctaw Indians were instrumental in defeating the German Army with their communication system.  The “Choctaw Telephone Squad,” as they were called, were, in fact, the original ‘code talkers.’  And while the Navajo (Diné) code talkers of World War II have reached some fame, there were code talkers from at least 14 Indian nations throughout World War II, including the Cherokee and Comanche.  

This was no ordinary service either.  Military historians note the development of military code by Native Americans stymied all code-breaking efforts by their German and Japanese counterparts throughout the war.  In fact, it is believed Native American codes in World War I and II were never broken and their service was nothing less than vital to Allied Victory.  It’s even thought that the battle for Iwo Jima would not have been an American victory had it not been for Indian code talkers.  

Though little known, the service of Native American Veterans has been distinguished.  Now, a proper and fitting memorial will give the American public – the world even – an opportunity to remember their unique service and to the veterans themselves and their tribes, a more public honor.  And given the memorial’s placement on the National Mall, think of the scores of student groups visiting Washington, D.C. on their annual class trip that will experience its message and ensure that future generations will not forget the service of these particular Americans.  These are, after all, the reasons for educational travel; it’s why we do what we do.

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