Designed by Oklahoma artist Harvey Pratt, National Native American Veterans Memorial opens in Washington, D.C.
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Wednesday's The Oklahoman.
Full circle: Oklahoma artist Harvey Pratt celebrates opening of National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
When Oklahoma artist Harvey Pratt selected the Washington, D.C., site for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, a good omen seemed to validate his choice.
"A hawk came out of the southwest, and he landed right on the location that I chose. He landed right on the edge of the water and he jumped around. I said, 'Look at him, he's dancing. He's dancing around where we chose our grounds.' And then he flew up and landed in a tree above the Path of Life, and he stayed there for an hour. He stayed there for an hour while we walked around and talked about it. And everybody said 'That's a great sign,'" Pratt said.
"My great-great-grandfather's Indian name was Red-Tailed Hawk, and my oldest brother Charles' Indian name was Red-Tailed Hawk. I said, 'My ancestors came down here to approve of this,' and now that hawk shows up all the time."
Starting Wednesday, the hawk won’t have the newest landmark on the National Mall to himself.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian will mark the official opening of the National Native American Veterans Memorial Wednesday, which is Veterans Day. Designed by Pratt, a Vietnam War veteran and internationally known Cheyenne and Arapaho artist based in Guthrie, the memorial will have special significance in Oklahoma and beyond.
“The National Native American Veterans Memorial will serve as a reminder to the nation and the world of the service and sacrifice of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian veterans,” said museum Director Kevin Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, in a statement. “Native Americans have always answered the call to serve, and this memorial is a fitting tribute to their patriotism and deep commitment to this country.”
Congress originally commissioned a national memorial for Native American veterans in 1994, a decade before the Museum of the American Indian was opened. In 2014, museum curators began conceptualizing the project - the first national landmark in Washington, D.C., to focus on the contributions of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians who have served in the military – and in 2017, the museum launched an international design competition that drew 413 entries from five continents.
In 2018, the submissions were narrowed to five finalists, including Pratt and the Oklahoma-based team of American Indian artists Daniel SaSuWeh Jones (Ponca) and Enoch Kelly Haney (Seminole). Pratt’s “Warrior’s Circle of Honor” was selected as the winning design, and work began on making the long-awaited memorial a reality.
"We had to go before so many boards ... and make presentations before they could approve it. I think there were 30-some approval agencies before we could actually get started on the groundbreaking," Pratt said.
“Rather than me sculpting a statue, I wanted to create a place that people could go to. Ceremonially, as a Cheyenne chief, there's places that we go to …and do our ceremonies there and it's special. So, that's what I wanted to do. … A lot of memorials are on the way to going somewhere else, and the National Native American Veterans Memorial is a destination.”
An internationally known painter, sculptor and forensic artist, Pratt retired in 2017 as the forensic artist for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation after a more than 50-year career in law enforcement. Despite his retirement, the El Reno native said working on the National Native American Veterans Memorial has kept him busy for the past three years, since a fellow Cheyenne and Arapaho veteran suggested he enter the design contest.
"My family, we're dreamers. … So, I went home and I dreamed about it,” Pratt recalled. "There's 570-some federally recognized tribes and another 200 state recognized tribes: How do you connect them all? … And that's when I came up with the concept that we do it through ceremony, spirituality, traditions."
He used in his design symbols that are universal among American Indian nations, including the cardinal directions, sacred colors and the elements of Earth. His “Warrior’s Circle of Honor” design has as its focal point an elevated stainless-steel circle that symbolizes the cycles of life and death as well as unity among Native veterans.
"Circles are so important to Native people. We're a people that live in circles: We have hogans and tipis and kivas and dance grounds,” Pratt said. "I called the steel ring 'The Hole in the Sky Where the Creator Lives.' Energy is passed back and forth through there: People praying for their veterans and praying their families and their war mothers, and the Creator sending his gift back through that circle to the people that are there.”
The 12-foot diameter circle is set on an intricately carved stone drum with water flowing over it and a flame that can be lit for special ceremonies. An outer wall encompassing the drum and circle will provide some privacy for the benches inside, and towering lances will give visitors a place to leave prayer ties or other special items.
"My great-great-grandfather could walk in there and he would recognize those elements that are necessary for him to do a ceremony,” Pratt said. "It's timeless. It's for all of us. It's not just for a certain era, it's not for just Vietnam or the World War II. This is for all of us, from way back when, when we fought in the Revolutionary War. … By the time you have over 570 different tribes ... and they all come in and do a ceremony, this is going to be like a church. It's going to be a powerful place."
More than 85 tribes, individuals, corporations and other organizations have contributed to the memorial. Pratt said he and his wife, Gina Pratt (Muscogee (Creek) and Euchee), have traveled around the country as part of a fundraising campaign that has raised $17 million for the project, which he said isn't using federal funds. The couple also has been making regular pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., especially since the fall 2019 groundbreaking.
Along with recruiting his wife and son and fellow artist Nathan Pratt for the project, Pratt tapped several other Oklahomans to help create the new landmark, including Oklahoma City architects Hans and Torrey Butzer, who designed the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
“Harvey is this amazing and accomplished artist, and he and Gina came to us looking for that collaborator that would help make it more than a sculpture but rather help anchor it and help create that sense of place. So, that place concept really is what we feel like we were bringing to the table to complement Harvey's just stunning sculpture and concept," Hans Butzer said in a phone interview last week from Washington, D.C., where he and his wife were overseeing the finishing touches on the memorial.
In addition, RedLand Sheet Metal in OKC created the signature circle, Swanda Brothers in OKC crafted the lances and The Crucible foundry in Norman did the bronze work on the memorial.
"It's such an honor to get to work on a project in this location just because it has the potential to convey a message to so many people. So, we just feel very fortunate to be on the team and to get to do some creating on the National Mall," Torrey Butzer said.
In an ordinary year, the National Mall draws millions of tourists from all over the world. But the coronavirus pandemic has assured 2020 is no ordinary year, and the National Museum of the American Indian opted to postpone the dedication ceremony and veterans’ procession originally planned for the memorial’s opening.
"It'll happen. ... They're going to plan on, hopefully with a vaccine, maybe next Veterans Day going with the planned celebration. But it's fluid,” said Gina Pratt.
Instead, a virtual tour, interview and tribute to Native veterans will go online Wednesday morning on the museum’s website and YouTube channel.
“It means so much to Native people and their veterans, their women and children and the war mothers. It means so much to them. They call me or text me ... to tell me how proud they are,” Pratt said with his voice breaking.
"To see it actually happening and all the work that people have done and how beautiful it's gonna be - and how beautiful it is already - at this point, it's emotional for me.”
The National Native American Veterans Memorial virtual opening is going online Wednesday at americaninian.si.edu/visit/washington/nnavmop and www.youtube.com/user/SmithsonianNMAI. The memorial is on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and will be free to visit 24 hours a day, seven days a week starting Wednesday, which is Veterans Day.