Dedicating a memorial to Native Americans who served in U.S. military

‘We’re getting the recognition we deserve,’ said an 80-year-old Kiowa tribal member from Oklahoma who is a Vietnam veteran

Hamilton Tongkeamha, 37, stands at the National Native American Veterans Memorial during a dedication ceremony. He's from the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma and is a retired staff sergeant of the U.S. Army who did two tours in Iraq. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
Hamilton Tongkeamha, 37, stands at the National Native American Veterans Memorial during a dedication ceremony. He's from the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma and is a retired staff sergeant of the U.S. Army who did two tours in Iraq. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Allen Kale ’iolani Hoe, 75, traveled nearly 5,000 miles from his home in Hawaii to witness the dedication of a memorial to honor Indigenous veterans and active U.S. military members that sits outside the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.

For Hoe, a Native Hawaiian who served as an Army combat medic in Vietnam, the trip to Washington last weekend brought pride and joy. There also was sadness as he remembered his 27-year-old son, Nainoa, a U.S. Army infantry officer who was killed 17 years ago in combat in Iraq.

“This is a powerful statement in terms of putting all of the politics aside to showcase Native peoples and how they’ve served this country through decades of conflict,” said Hoe. “This nation and the citizens of this nation owe a huge debt of gratitude to Indigenous men and women who have for decades — and even centuries — helped to preserve this country.”

Hoe was among 1,700 Indigenous veterans and military service members who came from tribes across the country and descended on the museum’s grounds for three days of events that kicked off Friday — Veterans Day — with a procession, followed by speeches from dignitaries and a ceremonial, first-time lighting of the $15 million memorial that has been more than two decades in the making.

The dedication, in sight of the U.S. Capitol, was an emotional experience for people whose ancestors had been forced from their lands and treated harshly by a country that many in their community went on to defend over past decades, and still serve today. There are roughly 135,000 veterans and active military service members who are American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian.

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Military veterans and active service members participated in the procession on the grounds of the Mall. Some decorated war veterans rode in motorized wheelchairs, while others used canes or walkers — many wore jackets or baseball caps that detailed their respective military branches and overseas deployments. Others wore their traditional Indigenous regalia, and some were in full military dress as they carried flags of the United States, their military branch and tribal affiliations and marched in cadence.

Thomas H. Begay, 98, a Navajo from Albuquerque, was among those who came. Growing up in a rural area, he spoke only Navajo until he learned English at 13 years old. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at 16. In World War II, he was selected as a Navajo Code Talker — a group of American Indians who used their Indigenous language to send secret military codes that enemies could not unscramble. Begay survived Iwo Jima and can still remember dates of battles he served in and the names of lost comrades. He went on to serve in the Army in Korea and survived the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, a particularly brutal fight. He earned eight Bronze Stars for his military service.

In the Friday procession, Begay occasionally stood from his wheelchair and walked a few hundred feet, pausing at times to wave and salute the crowd. He wore white gloves, a shirt adorned with his military honors and a traditional silver and turquoise Native American bolo at his neck.

Native American leaders said that before the memorial opened, Indigenous veterans had to go to other war memorials in D.C. for tributes. Getting a memorial to recognize Indigenous peoples’ service near the Mall was a long time in coming.

Ray C. Doyah, 80, traveled with roughly two dozen others from his Kiowa tribe in Carnegie, Okla., on a chartered bus for the dedication. An air traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force in the Vietnam War, Doyah sat in his walker on the Mall, listening as a dozen speakers praised Indians for serving a country that did not always respect them and their tribal sovereignty. As they spoke of Indigenous peoples’ valor, courage and perseverance, tears came to his eyes.

“This is so moving to be here,” said Doyah. “It means a lot to me. I’m so glad to see we’re getting the recognition we deserve.”

Native American veterans gathered at the National Native American Veterans Memorial on Nov. 11 for the dedication. (Video: Dana Hedgpeth/The Washington Post, Photo: Astrid Riecken for/The Washington Post)

Indigenous peoples have a long history of service in the U.S. military and have served in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War. Museum experts said that compared with their population in the United States, Indigenous peoples serve at “extraordinarily high numbers.”

At least 12,000 Native Americans served during World War I, and in World War II, about 44,000 served. Another 10,000 Indians served in the Korean War, and about 42,000 served in Vietnam. According to the Pentagon, of the roughly 1.3 million active duty U.S. service members, nearly 14,000 identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native.

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Some people may question why Native Americans would serve in the U.S. military, given the government’s forced takeover of their lands, followed by centuries of broken treaties, but Native American veterans, historians and tribal leaders said there is a complex set of reasons as to why they do it.

Some Native Americans were drafted. Others come from economically depressed areas, so it is a chance to travel and get on a stable career path. Many others serve because of a sense of patriotism and duty to defend homelands that originally belonged to their tribes. They see military service as an obligation and an honor. Some want to proudly follow generations of family members who have served. And for many, it is an extension of their tribe’s warrior culture and customs.

Doyah said he served because “it’s in my DNA.” Kiowa warriors historically were known to come home with “war stories,” he said, and “I wanted to come back and tell war stories, too. I’ve now had that privilege.”

Air Force Staff Sgt. Wayne Lufkins, 25, of Gallup, N.M., whose grandfather was a Navajo Code Talker, said he joined the service seven years ago because he wanted to do “what my ancestors did before me.”

“It’s a deep, personal devotion,” said Lufkins, who is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota and assigned to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Southeast Washington. “I do this for myself, my people and my family.”

Debra Kay Mooney, a 58-year-old Choctaw who served more than two decades in the U.S. Army National Guard in Oklahoma, described the service of Indigenous people as “a calling that’s embedded within us.” She said she was glad to come and see the dedication of the memorial. “Native Americans don’t always get paid attention to,” she said, “but now we’re getting some recognition for what we’ve done for this country.”

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In 1994, Congress passed legislation establishing the memorial, and museum officials spoke to more than 1,200 veterans and tribal leaders in forums across the country to get their input. They chose Harvey Pratt, a Cheyenne and Arapaho who also served as a Marine in Vietnam, from 120 submissions to design it. More than $15 million was raised for the memorial’s construction and dedication, and it opened in November 2020, but official dedication ceremonies were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Called the Warriors’ Circle of Honor, the memorial stretches 12 feet tall and is a stainless steel circle that’s balanced on a carved, stone drum. It has the seals of the Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps on it. The circle represents “the hole in the sky where the Creator lives,” according to Pratt, and visitors often tie cloths for prayers and healing — a Native American tradition — on four lances around the edges of the memorial. Pratt has said the memorial is meant to be a place of “gathering, remembrance, healing and reflection.”

At one point during Friday’s dedication, a rainbow broke through the clouds, just over the U.S. Capitol. For many including Hoe, it felt like a sign to honor those who had served.

“It’s awesome,” Hoe said, “to see the number of Indians that came to show our history and desire to continue the legacy and traditions of being Native warriors who want to serve their country and their Native lands.”

“My son would be so proud.”