The National Museum of the American Indian is the planned site for the veterans memorial. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Mall is studded with monuments to iconic people and events, from presidents to wars to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Later this month, finalists will be announced for a memorial to a group with less name recognition: Native American veterans.

In the 20th century, Native Americans served in the United States military at a higher per capita rate than any other ethnic group, and their service stretches back to the Revolutionary War. This might sound surprising, given their fraught history with the U.S. government. Why would so many choose to fight and sacrifice for a country that has often treated native tribes so badly?

Jefferson Keel, a Native American Vietnam vet, who was awarded a Bronze Star, looks at an exhibit dedicated to Native American vets at the Museum of the American Indian. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The answer lies in the way many see their patriotism, as inextricably connected with the land itself, said Rebecca Trautmann, project curator of the National Native American Veterans Memorial at the National Museum of the American Indian, upon whose land the memorial will be built.

“They have described an inherited responsibility to protect their homeland, their families, their communities and their traditional way of life,” she said.

Or as Debra Kay Mooney, a Choctaw who is a veteran of the Iraq War, put it: “Our ancestors are the very groundwork of the United States because we died here first. It’s our ancestors’ bones and marrow that has degraded into the ground that is actually in the roots and the tops of the tallest trees. . . . We needed to protect our ancestors’ bones.”

While Congress approved the erection of the memorial in 1994, it did not authorize fundraising for it until 2013. (It is scheduled to be unveiled on Veterans Day in 2020). Museum staff and members of an advisory committee traveled around the country, meeting with tribal leaders and veterans, and came back with a few directives: Be inclusive of all tribes and traditions; don’t leave out women; remember the sacrifices of family members; and include an element of spirituality.

The design must be broad enough to encompass the vast array of tribes (567 are federally recognized) yet specific enough that veterans and their families will recognize themselves and their stories.

That will not be easy for the panel of experts tasked with selecting the design. For example, some tribes’ history of service goes back longer than others; to some, horses were integral, while others never rode them.

“What an intriguing memorial this will ultimately be if it is able to encompass for the casual observer and for Native Americans the oddities of where we stand today as Native Americans in the 21st century,” said Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan tribe, who along with Mooney is on the advisory committee. “You have native scouts who were on both sides in the Indian Wars, you have the first Native American to die in the defense of what would be called the U.S.A., in the Revolutionary War,” a relative of Brown.

The placement of the memorial is significant, said Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, who is co-chair of the committee. “Anyone who goes out of the Capitol, down those steps, that will be the first thing they see. To me, that’s exciting.”

Keel acknowledged the contradictions inherent in serving a government that did not always serve its native population fairly. “I think it’s in the warrior tradition to protect the freedoms that we have, even though we were not allowed to be citizens in general until [the 1920s]. Even before they were allowed to vote, they served.” The memorial, he said, is “long overdue.”

Many Americans don’t know the extent of the more painful history of Native Americans, as well as many of their accomplishments, he said. “We’re not what they learned about in public school systems.”


Jefferson Keel, a Native American Vietnam vet, said there’s a lot to learn about his people’s history. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

That history includes the forcible removal of native children from their families to be educated in boarding schools — which in some ways helped prepare them for service. “Students were taken from homes, their hair cut short, put into military uniforms and made to lead regimented lifestyles — so, often, the military recruited them,” Trautmann said.

Among the best-known Native American veterans are the Choctaw, who passed messages in their own language during World Wars I and II — a code the enemy was unable to break. And Ira Hayes, one of six U.S. servicemen to raise the flag at Iwo Jima, became the subject of a Johnny Cash song.

Even among Native Americans there is a knowledge gap about their contributions, said Wayne Don, an Alaska Native who is a colonel in the National Guard. “I didn’t know that my two grandfathers were Alaskan territorial guardsmen until I picked up a book,” he said.

Over 31,000 Native American men and women are on active duty, and more than 140,000 veterans identify as Native Americans or Alaska Natives. Typically, they are celebrated in their own communities, with ceremonies and warrior societies that help them when they return from service. In 2004, a powwow was held in a combat zone near Fallujah, for which family members sent clothes and other items from the United States.

But despite the high status of warriors in many tribal traditions, Native Americans often have a harder time than the general population gaining access to veterans’ benefits, Trautmann said.

“On the one hand, they have this support from the community that other vets don’t, and on the other hand, it can be harder for them to access medical and social services,” she said. “Many of them turn to traditional healing to deal with some of the PTSD from combat.”

An important aspect of the memorial is that “it’s intended to welcome these vets and be a healing experience for them, whether it’s for vets who served many years ago, vets just returning from service or families who lost members in service,” Trautmann said.

One of those is Allen Hoe, a Native Hawaiian and Vietnam veteran whose 27-year-old son Nainoa was killed in Iraq in 2005.

“He was very proud of the fact that his ancestors for 100 generations were warriors,” said Hoe, who has another son in the military. “He wanted to step forward and provide the gratitude to his ancestors and conduct himself the way they would want him to.”

Woodrow Wilson Keeble (Eastern Sioux, 1917-1982) was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. For his actions in combat, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Combat Infantryman Badge. (N/A/U.S. Army National Guard)

Hoe said he was originally shocked and disappointed to learn there was not already a memorial honoring Native American veterans.

“I was puzzled as to why not,” he said, adding that he has since become active in veterans’ initiatives such as the memorial. “There’s not a lot you can do to change the past, but you can do your best to set the way forward.”

While many served with distinction, recognition was not always accorded to them in their lifetime.

Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson (“Woody”) Keeble, a full-blooded Sioux, served in World War II and later in Korea. He was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but the paperwork was lost; he was finally given the award posthumously, in 2008.

“He would be very honored” to see the memorial, said Keeble’s stepson, Russell Hawkins. “He comes from a warrior culture that epitomized all the values of honor and bravery, and he would want the story to be told.”

Hawkins also hopes the memorial, by highlighting Native Americans’ service and sacrifice, will do something else.

“I think the most bigoted white supremacist, when he reads what Woody did, saving the lives of his fellow soldiers, he’ll say, ‘Gee, maybe these guys aren’t so bad after all. Maybe they deserve a little bit more understanding, a little bit more compassion.’

“I think even the hardest heart will soften.”