WASHINGTON — William Smith of Valdez, an Alaska Native veteran who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, joined hundreds of Native veterans from around the country in Washington, D.C., on Friday to attend the dedication ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial.
Speaking on Thursday night at a gathering at the U.S. Capitol, Smith said, “To me, I’m here with veterans. I got my Alaskan veterans here. But when you see us tomorrow, you’ll see how strong the veterans are and how much they appreciate this.”
“It’s all part of the healing process,” he said.
The memorial is located at the National Museum of the American Indian and has a long history. Congress commissioned the memorial in the mid-1990s. But after the structure was finally completed in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed dedication ceremonies. At long last, Smith and more than 1,500 Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives gathered to dedicate the memorial on a rainy Veterans Day in Washington, D.C.
Benno Cleveland of Fairbanks, who is Inupiaq and served in the Army during the Vietnam War, also attended the dedication, and became emotional talking about the gathering.
“We continue to serve even though sometimes our people have been wronged. But we continue to serve with honor and respect because this is our land and it continues to be our land,” Cleveland said. “We continue to serve to protect our nation, our lands, and our people.”
The memorial was designed by Indigenous artist Harvey Pratt, a Vietnam War veteran from Oklahoma. It is an elevated stainless steel circle statue surrounded by prayer clothes. It also incorporates water features for ceremonies.
As a part of the ceremony, the Indigenous veterans processed on the National Mall. During the event, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Marine reservist, spoke about the “special patriotism” of Native veterans.
“The U.S. government did not always treat Native Americans with the respect and equality that they deserve,” Sullivan said in a speech. “Given this history, it would have been normal, even rational, that when called upon to serve in the military, and fight and die for America, the reaction of Native Americans over the decades might have been: ‘No thanks.’”
“But that wasn’t the reaction, to the contrary, it was the opposite,” he said.
Cleveland said he hopes the day’s dedication brings light to the high rate of Indigenous people who have served in the U.S. military and inspires policy to better support veterans.
“The nation will understand that there’s a tremendous amount of American Indian, Alaska Native veterans out there,” he said. “And then hopefully, maybe with that understanding they realize that they could do a better job of trying to help some of our veterans, wherever they might be.”
Reporter Riley Rogerson is a full-time reporter for the ADN based in Washington, D.C. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.
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