The past year has been one of loss for many. COVID-19 has taken its toll on families, elders, medical personnel, caregivers and veterans. While the pandemic has yet prevented the National Museum of the American Indian from publicly commemorating the opening of the National Native American Veterans Memorial on its Washington, D.C., grounds, the memorial has been no less impactful for those who have had the opportunity to experience it—and it is an experience.
The memorial offers a peaceful space for contemplation. After walking a tree-lined path, you can approach the centerpiece of the memorial from any one of four directions through openings in low granite walls. At the base of the steel circle is a reflecting pool. Visitors can stand or sit on the nearby benches. The hoop is also flanked by large metal spears on which prayer cloths can be tied.
Since the memorial’s opening on Veterans Day 2020, many visitors have left prayer cloths and brought other items with them to honor the veterans they have known. One group of Vietnam War veterans dipped the dog tags of their fallen Native comrade into the water before leaving with them. These veterans said they thought they “owed it to him,” recalled NMAI’s Elizabeth Gordon, who helped manage the building of the memorial. In this way, the memorial is not a static object but rather becomes alive with the memories of those who come here. As Gordon says, “It is a place for people’s stories.”
The memorial is open to all visitors, Native and non-Native alike. This image shows a shadow of a visitor on the Virginia mist granite wall behind the memorial, which features emblems for branches of the military, displayed in order according to U.S. Department of Defense protocol: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. That shadow seems to encapsulate those who are gone but not forgotten. Those who have served in any capacity for our communities and county, on or off the battlefield, are always with us. Rather than follow us, however, they continue to lead us, inspiring us to go forward.
We look forward to being able to welcome all who wish to attend the dedication of the National Native American Veterans Memorial, currently scheduled for November 11, 2022.