The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind a national memorial for Native American veterans, stories of slow loss, swift change and boots two sizes too big

George Bearpaw, shirtless in center, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, served in the Vietnam War. His father was a World War II veteran. (George Bearpaw)

George Bearpaw wasn’t sure if his father was listening. He continued telling him anyway about what happened that day he returned home from the Vietnam War.

About how he arrived at the airport, in his uniform, and drew the attention of a group of young people.

About how they spoke nicely to him at first, even asking about his medals, before spitting insults at him.

About how their shouts caused a crowd to form, and before he knew it, he was surrounded by people.

“They called me despicable,” he told his father, Thomas Bearpaw, a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war, as he lay dying from cancer.

His father didn’t respond that day, or in the many that followed. Then one night, during a rare lucid moment, he asked his son to help him sit up.

“You know when you told me you were despicable, that they called you that? You are despicable. We are despicable,” George Bearpaw recalls his father telling him, before explaining that the same could be said of their many relatives who fought in wars so that “normal” people wouldn’t have to carry the burden of those experiences. “We’re all despicable, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. Be proud of that.”

That was the last conversation George Bearpaw had with his father. His death came a few days later.

Bearpaw, who lives in Northern Virginia, shares that moment with me on a recent morning as we talk about why it matters that a National Native American Veterans Memorial now exists in the nation’s capital.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian officially opened the memorial on its grounds on Veterans Day.

Many tribes have created their own memorials to honor veterans, Bearpaw says. His father’s name sits on a brick that makes up one created by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. But having a national memorial in a place where everyone can visit, he says, offers an important “recognition.”

It offers an acknowledgment of the many generations of Native Americans who have put on uniforms and left home, not knowing when or if they would make it back. Bearpaw and three of his siblings joined the military, following a great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War, a great-uncle who served in World War I and a father who was one of Darby’s Rangers.

Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any other group, meaning they proportionately risk more of their lives to defend a country that was taken from them. And yet, what most Americans are taught about their military contributions usually starts and stops with the work of the revered Code Talkers, who sent secret communications during both world wars based on their tribal languages.

That work is an important part of Native American history, but it’s just that, part of it.

“That’s not the end of the story,” Bearpaw says. “There are a lot more stories.”

I have heard some of those stories in recent days from Native American veterans in the Washington region. I can’t fit all, or even many, of them in this column. But even bits of them show why a space to reflect is needed. Because of the pandemic, none of the people I spoke to planned to visit the memorial on Veterans Day, but they all described wanting to eventually see it up close.

They also all talked about it in a way that showed this: Native American veterans don’t have to see the memorial for its existence to make them feel more seen.

When Regina Beyale Barnett joined the Marine Corps in the late 1980s, shortly after high school, nudged by an uncle who didn’t want her to spend her entire life on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, she recalls getting asked by people in boot camp whether Native Americans still lived in tepees.

“Most of them had no idea that Native Americans were still around,” she says.

She credits her childhood on the reservation with helping her, at 5-foot-2, easily handle the same boot camp exercises as male recruits. She was part of the first female platoon to go through the same combat training as the men, she says. Later, she was one of the few women on an aircraft launch and recovery team. Their work required knowing how to turn a strip of land into an airfield and stop a plane without brakes.

She eventually left the military to study accounting but was pulled back into the military life when she met her now-husband, Bradley Barnett.

His parents are from the Muscogee-Creek and Laguna-Pueblo tribes, and he joined the Navy at the age of 23. Through his assignments, the family was stationed in Japan, California and eventually D.C. They now live in Maryland.

When they talk about eventually visiting the memorial, Bradley uses the word “honor,” and Regina pauses between her words to hold back tears.

“I would like to go and just think about the family members — sorry, I’m getting choked up — that are not here to see it,” she says. “They were really proud of serving.”

Juanita Mullen, a member of the Seneca Nation who works as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ American Indian/Alaska Native veterans liaison, says she was wondering how a single memorial would be able to speak to more than 500 federally recognized tribes and other tribal entities across the country.

“Every tribe is different,” she says. As part of her job, she meets with tribal leaders across the country, and before those trips, she reads history books and does research. “Everyone thinks I’m the expert, but I’m not. I’m still learning every day.”

When she saw photos of the memorial, which was designed by Harvey Pratt, a veteran and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, she found it “simple” and “so fitting.” It features a 12-foot-diameter stainless-steel circle on a drum made of stone.

Mullen’s story in the military begins with her living on a reservation in New York and seeing a commercial for the Air Force. Shortly after that, she was standing in a recruiting office, signing up. And not long after that, she was on a Greyhound bus, heading to get a physical.

She had taken only a small bag with her, thinking she would return home afterward. Instead, she says, she was told that her plane ticket was ready and that she would be leaving in a few hours for boot camp. Without a suitcase, or having called her family, she boarded a plane for the first time in her life.

She was 5-foot-3 and weighed 100 pounds — and after she arrived at a base in San Antonio, she found the only uniforms available were made to fit men. She was given a pair of boots two sizes too big and shorts she had to roll at the waist to make fit.

She remained in the Air Force for 20 years before retiring.

“I loved my military life,” she says. “I would never, ever change it for anything.”

Before Thomas Bearpaw got sick, he spent many Veterans Days sitting on a float in a local parade.

“Veterans Day meant everything to him,” George Bearpaw says, adding that he knows what his father would probably have thought about the new memorial. “He would have been the first person in line to see it.”

Bearpaw isn’t sure when he will visit it.

Shortly after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled, he came to D.C. on a business trip and wanted to see it. He went at midnight, so that he could sit alone with his thoughts and not have to worry about who might see him lose control of his emotions.

Even now, he still hasn’t brought himself to read the names on it.

Those, too, contain stories.

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