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A memorial for Native American veterans has been years in the making


Native American veterans will be in Washington, D.C., this afternoon for the dedication of a memorial honoring their service. It's at the National Museum of the American Indian. And this memorial was years in the making. NPR's Quil Lawrence talked with the Vietnam veteran who designed it.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Harvey Phillip Pratt is an artist from Oklahoma, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations. He wanted to design a memorial that would appeal to the nearly 600 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages, as well as Native Hawaiians.

HARVEY PHILLIP PRATT: I could reach these tribes through circles and pathways and cardinal points and sacred colors and a song.

LAWRENCE: War songs play over speakers incorporated into the design in a tranquil grove next to the museum on the National Mall. It's a circular, granite bench around a pool of water and an intricately carved stone drum. In the middle of the pool, a giant steel circle rests on its edge.

PRATT: And then a fire and a big steel circle, which is a hole in the sky where the creator lives. And we have the earth and the air. And I thought, those are things that we all use, sacred fires, sacred water.

LAWRENCE: Elements used by many tribes in ceremonies, including, Pratt says, age-old healing of what's now called PTSD from war. A tall steel lance stands at each of the cardinal directions, with rings so visitors can tie on prayer cloths.

PRATT: Not all tribes use those, but many - a lot of them do. A prayer cloth is a - you can say a prayer into that cloth for your veterans or for the family or for someone who's passed. And when the wind blows, that prayer goes out every time it shakes that prayer cloth.

CYNTHIA CHAVEZ LAMAR: Unfortunately, in American society, you know, American Indians are pretty invisible.

LAWRENCE: Cynthia Chavez Lamar directs the National Museum of the American Indian. She's a member of the San Felipe Pueblo and the first Native woman to head a Smithsonian museum.

LAMAR: The memorial is one way to represent, to make us visible.

LAWRENCE: To remind the public, she says, that American Indians have served in huge numbers going back to the Revolutionary War, despite a painful history.

LAMAR: We've lost lands. We've been disenfranchised in different ways. But at the end of the day, you know, we're going to fight for this country. And I'm just, you know, thankful that the museum is able to do a little part to honor that service.

LAWRENCE: Harvey Pratt says the memorial celebrates warriors who defended their land and their people.

PRATT: Their blood is spilt all over this land. And we have spilt Native American blood all over this earth defending this land. And that - we will continue to defend it.

LAWRENCE: Thousands of Native veterans are expected to attend the dedication of the memorial later today on the National Mall.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TASH SULTANA SONG, "NOTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.