THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Okay. Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing Understanding America: The Legacy of Native American Military Service. My name is Jen McAndrew and I am today’s moderator. In advance of Veteran’s Day, and in tandem with National Native American Heritage Month, this briefing will explore the history and contributions of Native Americans in the U.S. military, which has recently gained long overdue recognition with the launch of the National Native American Veterans Memorial at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. This memorial was supported by tribal governments and tribal veterans organizations.
Today’s briefing will include perspectives from Rebecca Trautmann, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Harvey Pratt, Native American artist, veteran, and the designer of the memorial. We greatly appreciate both of our briefers for sharing their expertise today.
And now for the ground rules: This briefing is on the record. The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government. Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views.
Our briefers will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions. And with that, I will pass it over to our briefers.
Rebecca, over to you.
MS TRAUTMANN: Thank you, Jennifer. I apologize. I’m having a little technical difficulty.
MODERATOR: Oh, it looks good.
MS TRAUTMANN: Let me share that one more time. Apologize. Just a second, please. Okay. Okay, thank you.
Good morning, and thank you for the introduction, Jennifer, and thank you very much for inviting us to talk about the National Native American Veterans Memorial and the history of Native American military service. Native Americans, including American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, have an extraordinary history of serving honorably and in great numbers in the United States Armed Forces. Veterans are among the most honored and respected individuals in many Native American communities. Honor songs are composed and sung for them. In many communities, ceremonies are held for service members when they – before they leave for their service and again when they return. Yet this tradition of service and sacrifice has not been widely recognized.
The United States Congress directed the National Museum of the American Indian to create a National Native American Veterans Memorial to honor the outstanding service of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian veterans, and to raise public awareness of this rich history of service. To quote from the legislation, the memorial is intended to give “all Americans the opportunity to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans in the Armed Forces of the United States.” The memorial is located prominently on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington. Last November on Veterans Day, we marked the memorial’s completion and opening with a virtual program, honoring and thanking Native American veterans for their service.
Native Americans have served in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War. In the 20th century, more than 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I, and 10,000 Native women joined the Red Cross. During World War II, over 44,000 Native Americans – American Indians served, including nearly 800 women. Since World War II, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians have also served in great numbers and with distinction. During World War II, for example, more than 6,300 Alaska Native men and women between the ages of 12 and 80 volunteered to serve in the Alaska Territorial Guard. On D-Day in June of 1944, 500 Native Americans and Canadian First Nation citizens participated in the invasion at Normandy, helping to bring the war to a close.
The story of the code talkers may be the best known part of the history of Native American military service. The military’s practice of employing native-language speakers to transmit sensitive messages began in World War I, and eventually included speakers of 10 Native languages. In World War II, the program was expanded to include about 25 tribes, of whom the 420 Navajo code talkers are the best known. Using the languages many of them had been punished for speaking as children in boarding schools, and sometimes creating complex codes, the code talkers contributed in ways they were uniquely able to do.
Service continued at a high rate throughout the 20th century, in peacetime and in war. Today, there are more than 24,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native men and women on active duty, and more than 183,000 veterans identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.
When the museum began work on the memorial in early 2014, we knew we needed to seek guidance from those whom it would honor. We began by forming an advisory committee of nearly 30 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian veterans, tribal leaders, and family members. The committee members contributed invaluable guidance, sharing their insights and experience and assisting us with outreach.
This timeline gives an overview of our work on the memorial, beginning with a consultation process from 2015 to 2017, a juried design competition in 2017 to 2018, the design selection and development, groundbreaking in September of 2019, and then construction and completion of the memorial. From 2015 to 2017, museum staff spent about 18 months traveling across the country to hold consultations with Native veterans, active duty service members, tribal leaders, and community and family members. We held 35 consultations in 16 states and the District of Columbia, sharing plans for the memorial and listening to what Native veterans and their families hoped to see in the memorial. We met with about 1,200 people in all.
During these consultations, veterans discussed their reasons for serving. We heard many different reasons, but foremost among these, something we heard again and again was an inherited sense of responsibility to protect one’s homeland, family, community, and way of life. A veteran at a consultation hosted by the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado remarked that the land he and his community live on holds their great-great-grandparents’ bones, and they’re committed to defending it. And in Anchorage, Alaska, a Yupik veteran remarked that the memorial must reflect life; we were taught to love life, even to the point of risking our lives to save the life of another person.
These conversations were essential to understanding what Native veterans and their families wanted to see in the memorial, the values it must embody, and what the experience of visiting the memorial should be.
There were several themes and wishes that we heard expressed again and again in these consultations, which formed the basis for the design goals for the memorial. We heard that the memorial must be inclusive, honoring all American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiian veterans – men and women from all branches and all eras of service.
We heard a desire for the memorial to also acknowledge the sacrifices made and support given by the families of those who serve. We heard that the memorial should reflect Native American spirituality, again, in a very inclusive way. And there was a desire for the experience of visiting the memorial to be a contemplative and healing one, whether for veterans remembering their service decades ago, for families of – families thinking of loved ones who served, or for young service members just returning home.
There was a sense that the memorial should not be about war, but about those who had served.
To select a design for the memorial, we held an international juried competition. 120 first-round proposals were narrowed to five finalists, from which the jury unanimously selected the design concept submitted by Harvey Pratt, which they felt best accomplished what was laid out in the design goals for the memorial.
Harvey Pratt is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, and a Southern Cheyenne peace chief. In addition to being an artist, he’s a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and a retired forensic artist. Harvey brought to his design his own experience as a veteran and as a tribal citizen who has lived this long tradition of service.
Harvey will talk to you next about his design, but I’d like to first let you know about a few resources for learning more about Native American military service. To mark the opening of the memorial, the National Museum of the American Indian published a book titled Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces, tracing the history of service of Native Americans in the United States military. And the two editions of the book are shown here.
There’s an online exhibition by the same name, based on the book. The exhibition can be accessed on the museum’s website, and that web address is shown here. There’s another educational exhibition on the museum’s website on the code talkers of World Wars I and II, titled Native Words, Native Warriors. And the address is shown here. And the fall of 2020 issue of the museum’s member magazine, which can also be accessed online, is a commemorative issue with stories on the memorial and Native American military service.
Now that the memorial is completed and open, the museum will continue to develop programs, exhibitions, and publications to ensure that the story of Native American service continues to be told for generations to come.
We look forward to welcoming Native American veterans, family and community members, and the public to the memorial’s dedication on Veterans Day of next year, 2022. We’re planning a weekend of public programs and a large procession of Native American veterans on the National Mall.
And now I’m very pleased to introduce the memorial’s designer, Harvey Pratt, who will talk about the memorial and the inspiration for its design. Harvey.
MODERATOR: Harvey, do we have you? We just need you to unmute yourself now. There we go.
MR PRATT: Can you hear me now?
MODERATOR: We can hear you now. Please, go ahead.
MR PRATT: I’m sorry. Thank you very much for allowing me to be with you guys today. I appreciate it. It’s a great honor for me. I – it was a great honor for me to be involved in this memorial. I had to initially – I had not thought about doing it. And even though I attended several meetings, I felt like it was not – there would not be a chance for me to even do this thing. And some tribal – my tribal people asked me to go ahead and submit a design, and I said, “Let me dream on it; let me think about it. And I will.”
And my initial thoughts were: How do you reach 574 federally recognized tribes without naming a specific tribe? And I come from a very traditional family and was involved in a lot of ceremonies, and being a Cheyenne chief, I had to – had been to many different tribes and participated in ceremonies that – and I thought the way that you do that is through ceremony and tradition and history. And I thought rather than doing a statue, I wanted to do something that was interactive, that you could walk into, like when we walk – when we go into the chief’s lodge. It’s a different world, and you have to go there. And I said, that’s what I have to do; you have to build something that people will want to go to. It has to be a destination.
And I thought, oh, the path of life. As you walk through your life, you kind of drift in and out, and you get pulled back into your path of life. Sometimes you drift away and you make that way, and you think about your plans and what your desires are and what you have to do in life. And which hat are you going to wear today? Are you going to be a father, are you going to be a brother, an uncle? So you walk that different path, and I thought that’s what you do.
And I thought about it. I said, Indian people, we’re the same, but we’re different. We all have the same basic concept about the Earth and Mother Earth and trees and rocks and water and fire and the air. And I thought, that’s what we incorporate. I need to incorporate all of those things into that so that tribal people will recognize those elements.
We – some tribes say they came from out of the mountains, and some tribes say they come from the stars and they go back to the stars. And so Indian people paid attention to the environment. They paid attention to the animals, and the plants, and the rocks, and the earth. And they used fire and water. And I thought, that’s what I’ll incorporate, those elements that they can use. And so the Path of Life is you walk there until you get to a certain area. And you walk around, and when you enter into the inner circle, you become in harmony with the earth, air, water, and the fire.
And so I incorporated those four elements into the Warriors’ Circle of Honor. And those four things were the principal concept, and a drum in the very center with a large steel circle. And the steel circle to me represents the hole in the sky where the Creator lives, and we send our prayers through there, and he sends his gifts back to us. And the drum is water, has water flowing across the top, and the water flows with a certain volume, and another pump makes it ripple, gives it a ripple that goes down across the drum.
And I incorporated the directions, the directions – the north, south, east, and west. And then we – a lot of tribes will refer to the six directions, up and down, and some tribes refer to the seventh direction, which is where you stand. So I made openings where the energy can come into this inner circle, the place of harmony. And so your directions are there. And then I incorporated the cardinal points. The cardinal points are the southeast, and that’s the sacred color white; and the southwest is the sacred color red; and the northwest is the sacred color yellow – that’s Mother Earth; and the northeast is color black, and that’s where our ancestors are.
And our ancestors taught us all of these things. They gave us all these ceremonies. So we ask our ancestors to come watch us to make sure we do these ceremonies the way that we were taught and instructed to do. And so once you’re inside the – inside of all of that, there’s four lances, and those lances have eagle feathers on them. And they have the sacred colors on the battle streamers. And we also incorporated rings on the lances where you could tie prayer cloths. And not all tribes use prayer cloths, but a lot of the plains tribes use prayer cloths and medicine bags and different things that they tie into the trees or in the branches. And we tie them onto those lances, and those are – you say a prayer into that cloth, and then every time the wind blows, that prayer goes out for somebody.
And we want this to be an area where people can come and be respectful, and they can pray for their veterans, and they can come in there to be healed because people are going to come here and they’re going to make ceremonies, and they’re asked for blessings. And it’s going to become a powerful place, and it already is doing that now. So when you come there, you can say a prayer, sit down and meditate, and hopefully something will come over you and it’ll help you be healed.
It’ll also be a place of education, a place that Native people can come there and do their ceremonies, and non-Native people can watch and see that what these people are doing – can ask a question. What are they doing? They’re making an offering. They’re blessing the water. They’re using the water to bless themselves. They’re using the fire to light their sweetgrass, and their sage, and their cedar. And so you’ll see them doing these ceremonies. And it’s just like going into a sacred teepee, where the different clans meet, different societies meet and have their ceremonies. And it becomes a place of healing. And that’s what we want this to be, a place of healing.
And it’s not just for one era. It’s not just for a particular time. It’s for all times. It’s for the past. If my great-grandfather walked in there, he would recognize these elements. And people today, when they walk in there, veterans and families walk in there, they will recognize these elements. And my grandchildren’s grandchildren will walk in there and they’ll recognize these elements. And they’ll – so it’s for the past, the present, and the future. And it’s designed to be ongoing and endless, timeless, a timeless design. And that’s what I hoped it would be. And when my wife and I, Gina, we went there last Veterans Day, and we watched people come in there, Native people come in and do ceremonies, and tie prayer cloths, and sing songs, and do little ceremonies. And non-Native people came in and looked and watched, and they became aware of us. They became aware of Native people and what they were doing, singing their songs and praying for people.
And this system has a sound system in it, and it’s – if you walk around, the museum has – plays 24/7 music, Native American songs, flag songs, veterans songs, honor songs. And when you can come in there, you’ll hear those songs very quietly. And you can sit down on the inside, and on the Path of Life we have a panel wall there with a bench, and it has the seals, the military seals, on that wall. As you come by, you can recognize your service that you served in, and those – you’ll see the seals there. And we left a space for additional seals in the future.
So as you walk down there, you’ll notice a pattern, a pattern in the railing and a pattern in the walkway. And that is the vibration that goes out from the drum, and the water, and the fire. And that vibration goes out across the memorial, across the Mall, and continues all out. And the drum vibration calls the people to this memorial. And this memorial is a destination. You have to want to go there. It’s not a shortcut going somewhere else. It’s a destination that you have to want to go there. And you’ll see that we’ve been – we put it on – partially on the water and on the land, and people can do ceremonies there as they walk down there.
And we put a bench halfway down on the walkway because I know that during Desert Storm, guys that were affected by the burning of the wells, oil wells, had a lot of trouble with lung trouble, and guys with bad legs and wounds. And so I gave them an opportunity to sit down and contemplate before they moved on into the Warriors’ Circle of Honor.
And I – we find out that a lot of people are aware of these ceremonies, because they used them themselves. But Native people are – use them daily. They use these – the water, the earth, the fire, and the air – they use all those things almost every day. And a lot of cultures will bless themselves with water, use of fire, and we leave things in the earth, return things to the earth.
So it’s a design that I hoped it to be timeless for all people, and they’ll recognize these things, and will educate non-Native people. And this design was specifically for Native people, but we invite all veterans to come there and to be with us, and to sit down and use some of the things in a respectful way and watch what goes on, and maybe it’ll help heal them too.
A long time ago, Indian warriors, when they went out on – went out for an adventure, and before they came back into the camp, they had to stay outside the camp. And they – the people didn’t – wouldn’t let them come in because they had been out doing battle, and so the medicine men would go out, outside of the camp, and go to these men, and they would purify them and clean them up. And they were treating PTSD long before we even knew anything about it. But Native people were treating their warriors like that. They’d go out and cleanse them and purify them before they could come into the camp and be among the human beings. And they didn’t want them coming in there if he had – angry and mad and having a bad attitude about things. And so they cleansed them up first. They did that to me whenever I came back from Vietnam. My family had a ceremony for me and they gave away their belongings to the people, and they fed everybody, and they had a ceremony for me.
So I think that I’ve always appreciated that, and my uncle was a World War II veteran and he was one of my heroes. He was – had all kind of wounds, and I noticed that, as I proceeded through my life, that in some tribes – some tribal people would not even stand in the shadow of their veterans. They wouldn’t step on their shadow. And almost every tribe has a veterans memorial on their property where they honor their veterans and list their names and talk of them and tell stories. And we were always taught as children to go shake hands with veterans, and even the men and the women that – they’re honored in our culture. They’re honored people in our culture.
So – this has the water in it, the lights in it, speaker systems around it. It’s the only speaker system where there’s a sound system on the Mall, of all the memorials. This is the only one that has that drum singing.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you, Harvey, for that very detailed insight into the memorial and the symbolism. Before we turn to journalist Q&A, I know we are going to have Rebecca just ask a few more questions.
MS TRAUTMANN: Yes, thank you, Jen. And thank you, Harvey. I think you really – you touched on this some in your remarks, but I think that your design really reflects that you brought to it your own experience as somebody who has served, as a veteran, as – and as somebody who grew up with this tradition of respect for veterans in your community. Could you talk a little bit more about how your experience as a Native veteran and as a tribal citizen helped to inform your design for the memorial, and what you felt people would want to experience when they visited the memorial?
MR PRATT: Well, as a – growing up and seeing veterans in uniform, and thinking about what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, I always knew that I was going to be in the military. I wanted to go to the military and – because of my uncle and the men that I saw and the women that I saw. My aunt Margaret Walker (ph) served in World War II, and she would come to our house and then she would take us four boys for a walk, and she would march with us. And I always enjoyed walking with her because she wore her uniform, and it was – and it – I just thought that was a wonderful thing to do and participate in.
And as I got older, I started going to different ceremonies and looking at what people were doing, and my grandfather, he said we’re a people of circles. He said we have the circle of seasons, we have the circle of life, we pass through a stage of life, he said. And if you look around, he said our teepees are round. He said our dance grounds are round. He said that – kivas and different hogans and different things are round, he said. And if you look out there, he said, that tree trunk is round. He said it’s – the trunk is round, he said. And you can go out and pluck a piece of grass, he said, that stem is round. He said everything is circles, he said. And so we’re a circle people.
So that was what I kind of thought about – I had not been to the museum at that time. I was supposed to go but then I got sick when they opened it up. I was ill. And so I didn’t know there were circles all over on the grounds, but I – my design without seeing the grounds was circles. I had vertical circles, I had horizontal circles, overlapping circles, a pathway. And so I thought those things all were important to us. And you saw people – you see people with baskets and pottery, and they’re all circles. So I – we’ve got to have circles in this. So that’s how I thought about the circle and the walls, and the designs in the granite.
And I look at this picture we’re looking at now, and you see the museum behind it, and the museum behind it is a beautiful architectural structure. There’s no corners on this outside of this design. It’s wind-swept and it curves. It’s just gorgeous. It’s – I think it’s the prettiest building in Washington, and we sit on this little area where there’s a small pond there and trees all around, and there are even – when we were picking this design – we were picking this location, a hawk came down and landed on this very location that we were looking at. And it jumped around, it danced all around on the ground, and then it flew up into those trees above the pathway and stayed there for a full hour or so. And among the Plains people, when you saw a raptor come to the ground, that was a good sign. That means you were going to be successful that day in whatever you were doing. And that’s the way we looked at it. We said, “You know what? That’s a good sign. This is going to be successful.”
And that hawk comes back at various times and stays there at this memorial, and I think that those are things that happen that you don’t plan. You don’t plan for it. They just happen. Like we discovered the dancing fire in the water and over your hand when the lights come through it, and it looks like you’re hand’s on fire. And that was another thing that just happened. So there’s things that just happened about this memorial that in my mind were making it a more powerful place.
MS TRAUTMANN: Thank you, Harvey. And I agree that you’re – going back to something you said a few minutes ago about the use of the circle, the circle motif, again and again in the memorial is part of what makes it so inclusive and so welcoming and so powerful.
One of the biggest challenges – I think I mentioned this earlier. One of the biggest challenges we faced in creating this memorial was trying to find a design that was going to be meaningful to people from so many different backgrounds – Native Americans from the continental U.S., the Native Hawaiians, Alaskan Native people, people from so many different backgrounds and experiences and cultural traditions. And it was very important that this memorial be inclusive, that all of those veterans feel represented and feel welcome here and feel a connection to it. And I think your inclusion of this – your focus on the circular design really, really accomplished that.
I wanted to ask, in your conversations with people since the memorial opened, how – what kinds of things have you heard from people? How has it been received by Native veterans and community members?
MR PRATT: When Gina and I was there, people would come in there and they felt like – they felt – you could just hear them talking as they were coming down, then they got quiet and they calmed down, and it got – they almost got – they got respectful. They may not have understood everything, but they got – they knew there was something going on here, and they were quiet. And they came in and they said it’s peaceful here. It’s not like the hustle and bustle of going down the street, going down Jefferson or one of the – where people are talking. And it got quiet in here.
Just it was – that’s what we wanted it to do. We wanted people to come in here and the Hawaiians came in and they tied cloths on – in our – on our lances as prayer cloths and said their prayers, and people came in and brought their drum and they sang their flag songs and their warrior songs and their veteran songs and their honor songs. And they might do a little ceremony there, and so there’s a place for them there at the Earth, that they could use the Earth and the water. They could put things in, put things in the water, get – you saw people that – at night even. When we went at night, people were coming in there. They would see that circle.
And they may not have even known what it was, but they saw something there, and they come on the grounds and walk down that path and go in there. And some people would go in and stand by the drum and walk around the drum where the water is and the big circle, steel circle, and some people would sit down and just sit there for a while. And they could hear that drum, that drum drumming and singing. And they were – some Native and non-Natives – there was something that drew them into there. And I think that’s what it – that’s what I wanted it to do, and that’s what it apparently is doing now that people go down there and become respectful and quiet. And it’s different. There’s something different about that memorial rather than being on a street or a walkway. This is a definite – definite – you have to want to go there.
MODERATOR: Well, I think on that note, thank you, Harvey and Rebecca, for that really insightful conversation, and we’ll now go to journalist Q&A. As a reminder, you can submit your question in the chat box, or you can virtually raise your hand to ask your question.
Our first question will go to Daisuke Nakai from Asahi Shimbun, who had submitted an advance question. Daisuke, if you would like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much for doing this talk. I’m based in New York City, but next time in – I’m in Washington, D.C., I’ll definitely try to make time to go see the memorial. It looks really like a (inaudible) place.
My question is sort of about the state of Indian rights and Indigenous People’s rights. There’s been a lot of attention this year. There was the discovery of the mass graves in the Canadian residential schools, and Secretary Haaland has said that she’s going to start looking into the U.S. boarding school system as well.
At the same time, the Cleveland Indians have been changing their name, and during the World Series there was the whole controversy over the tomahawk chop. And Commissioner Manfred said that the Braves – the local Indian community was supportive of that, and then some people came out and said no, they weren’t supportive of it, which sort of shows how there’s still the discord there.
I was sort you hoping you could talk about how you see the situation concerning American Indians’ and Indigenous People’s rights in 2021 and the meaning of opening the memorial in such a time.
MR PRATT: Well, that’s a big, big subject to cover a lot of – that covers a lot of stuff. And I think that there’s been some tragic times in our past the way Native people were treated and when their – they wanted to kill the culture. They wanted to kill the culture. They wanted to kill who we are. The story was save the man, kill the Indian. See? So kill your culture. And then they took children away so that they wanted to change them. They forcibly took children away from families. I mean, they even did that in the ’50s, in the late ’50s, early ’50s. They took Native people from their homelands and sent them to Chicago and Detroit and Washington and Minnesota, they sent them to California, to try to incorporate them into the dominant culture. And that didn’t work. We’re a strong people. We are a strong people and we didn’t let them take away our culture.
I’m growing up, I was told, “Don’t talk about certain things because they’re going to take them away from you. They’re going to take it away from you. Don’t talk about it.” So we were very careful about what we said, and we were careful about certain ceremonies. We didn’t want them to – they stopped a lot of them. They tried to take away – they wanted to destroy our chiefs, the Cheyenne and Arapahos’. They wanted to take away our chiefs, and we wouldn’t do it. They took away a lot of the chiefs from their tribe, from other tribes, because they wanted to break that circle that the chiefs had.
And when I see things that – and I’ve seen a lot of things in my life about how people respected Indians and some people did not respect Indians. And some people would say things that were demeaning, but they acted like it wasn’t. So we had to – we learned to recognize certain things. And we – and so when I see certain things that are being done, and I wonder if this is being done out of respect or is it being done to belittle, and you have to make that – you have to make that distinction of what someone says and what someone does as how is it met.
And I can become offended about certain things, and some things not – I’m not offended by because I feel like it may be done and mean something by it. But if they do things meaning that this chop, if it means that it – they’re saying, that’s what we did, we killed people, and I’d say that – and that’s not true. To a certain degree it’s not true. It’s not like that’s what we lived for and what we did. A warrior is someone not only – he defends the camp. He defends his family. He defends his people. He defends his ceremonies. He takes care of people. He’s beyond fighting. He takes care of them. He takes care of the orphans. He takes care of the old people. He feeds people. He gives away things to take care of people. Now to me, that is what a warrior is. He’s more than just a fighter. He takes care of people.
And I can – we’re concerned about certain things, and I’ve heard all sorts of things in my whole life growing up and experienced a lot of things. And some people, they would talk about Indians and it’s respectful, and some people would talk about Indians and say things that were not respectful. And I could walk away from that. I could walk away from that, from not being respectful. So at my age, I’ve kind of learned to pick and choose and to walk away from it and ignore certain things. And I think that that’s what – as a Cheyenne chief, I’m not supposed to be arguing with people. I’m not – I’m supposed to be someone that’s a mediator, someone that will listen to you and then give advice, give you advice, and not choose sides and attack somebody.
So I’m going to tell you that’s hard to do. That’s hard to do to be in the middle. Because I get offended. I mean, I get offended like anybody else. Some people will want me to defend them, and so I have to try to be in the middle. So I think that that’s just the way I was just raised, and that’s the way that Southern Cheyenne chiefs are supposed to be. Don’t be arguing. Don’t be fighting with people. You have to give that up. You have to give up your war ways. I can’t do some things. I can’t – I can only be defensive. I can’t be aggressive. And that’s the way I feel about it.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Harvey. Our next question will go to Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jen, for this very timely event. And Rebecca, Harvey, remarkable presentations on a very remarkable history.
The Defense Department put out some numbers earlier this month which made it clear that a significant amount of Native Americans have served in all of the nation’s wars, so beginning with the Revolutionary War. When Jen and her colleagues at the Foreign Press Center issued us with this event last week, and I tried to pitch this story to my editors from 6,000 miles away from here, the first question came to their minds was: Wow, Native service in America presents a paradox to non-Natives. So why would they fight for America, they say, given its long, complicated history, from colonizing to attempts to – I think I’m going to borrow your words, Harvey – killing the culture, as you put it?
I know it’s a proud history, and I do have my own take, especially after seeing your wonderful presentations. But I do want to give you a chance at this obvious question. Thank you so much.
MR PRATT: Okay. Here’s what I think. Here’s what I think about this. When there was no one here in the Americas, North and South, there was no one here, the Creator gave America to the Indians first. He gave us this land. The Creator did this. This is Indian country. It’ll always be Indian country. We have fought for this land from the very beginning. We’ve had to fight for it. Our blood is soaked in this Earth, and our ancestors are all buried in this Earth, and regardless of who owns it, who owns it now, this is always Indian country. This is our land. We’ll fight for it. We’ll fight for this land, and we’ve fought for it here, and now we’re fighting for it across the world. Our blood is – our Indian blood is soaked all over this Earth.
And I think that we fight for it because this is our land as anybody else. And we fight for it because everybody else did, just the way countries did all over this world. They fought for their country, their mother. Their mother. And that’s the way we are. We fight for this land because it’s ours, too.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: We do have another hand raised. Pearl Matibe, who is a freelance journalist from Zimbabwe in South Africa. Pearl, over to you for your question.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for your presentation, and I guess understanding what happened through your lens has been interesting to listen to. I wonder if you could speak to how you have managed or how Native Americans have managed to thread the culture and the norms and the values and the moral ways that they would live and so on into the way of life in America, which itself has its own values completely different to Native American values? How do you see that?
I see a lot of parallels to the story that you have been sharing with many tribes in Africa, who themselves were colonized and had to adopt another culture. So I’m wondering what lessons could be learned from Native Americans on how they’ve managed to bridge that, I suppose, and still not lose what’s essentially their norms, their values? I wonder if you could speak to that. Thanks.
MR PRATT: Thank you. That’s a good question. I think that our ancestors were oppressed. They tried to change them into somebody else, and the cultures of the tribes is still very strong. They went kind of dormant for a while because they were so dominated and there were so many that were displaced and moved around, and they had to be very careful about what they said and what they did. And I experienced that in my life, that our – I was raised by people that were born in the 1870s, my grandfather and my mother’s aunts and her relations, and they were – and my mother would be – if she were alive, she’d be 110 years old today. She’d be 110.
And they were oppressed and – had to be careful of what they did and what they said, and I think that’s – in secrecy, they continued to do the things that they did, and they were so dependent on and so under the thumb of the government that they couldn’t do anything on their own. And they moved them into certain areas and they had to stay there. They couldn’t travel outside of – out of their jurisdictions in – a long time ago, and so they became very guarded and they wouldn’t share things.
I grew up with people who say, “I grew up with Indians, I know Indians.” Well, they really didn’t. They really didn’t know Indian people. Even though they – you lived among them, they still – we kept our secrets and our ceremonies. And once we were able to get out from underneath the thumb – my grandfather couldn’t even sell his own land. He had to have a guardian to tell him what he could do and how he could do it, and when he wanted to sell something or where he wanted to go, they had – and – but they don’t do that anymore.
Native people have tried – tribal people have gotten stronger over the years. We’ve gotten stronger. We’ve – self-governing, sovereignty, and we’re taking care of our people. We’re – Cheyenne-Arapaho’s a very small tribe, very small tribe, probably less than 15,000 of us here in Oklahoma, Indians. But there’s 39 tribes here in Oklahoma, 39 tribes in Oklahoma, and they all have their areas and they all have their ceremonies. Now we don’t have to hide. We don’t have to hide our ceremonies. We can do them in the open, and they never used to do that.
So now a lot of tribes lost some ceremonies and they’re trying to revive those ceremonies that they used to do, and we – all of our ceremonies that the Cheyennes did and the Arapahos did, they would do them in secret and they called them other things. We still have our Sun Dance. We still Sun Dance here and – the Cheyenne-Arapahos in different locations every year. It’s a renewal of people. It’s a renewal of the Earth. That’s what the Sun Dance is about is, is a renewal of people, and that’s what’s happening to us. We are being revitalized and becoming stronger as – and in our culture and are not afraid to – we’re not afraid to have our culture now and to do these things.
And when white people come see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, I think that that’s how people survive, not only just Indians but other cultures. Into Central America and in South America they’re finding things and – that – cities of 50,000 people in Central America and South America. It’s huge cities. They’re finding huge compounds here in North America where Indians gathered up for 20,000 people living in an area. And people didn’t think we did that, but we’re now just starting to learn all of those things about ourselves and our culture and our ancestors that they tried to oppress and suppress. But I think the worm has turned. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Pearl, did you have a follow-up? I see your hand is still raised.
QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.) Yes, thank you so much. It’s a quick follow-up. I heard you speak about sovereign way of life, and I’m guessing that that is documented somehow. Can you help with – maybe share where I can access a resource like – or maybe talk about what is one thing about the sovereignness that is different to the American Constitution? Like, is there one thing you can point to? If not, that’s fine, but maybe can share where I can look up some sovereign documents. I want to see what are the differences that make yours so sovereign that’s different to the U.S. Constitution. Thanks.
MR PRATT: The American Constitution was patterned after the Algonquins’ unity. They had their unity of tribes, and that’s what – the colonists saw that and patterned their Constitution after those tribes because they were a union of tribes and that’s – and they patterned their – this Constitution, the American Constitution, on that same pattern. So there’s – a lot of people probably don’t even know that. That’s exactly what happened. They based that on those tribes, from the Algonquins. There are six or seven tribes that banded together for unity, and (inaudible) – you – I think that’s what you could look up. You could look up those Algonquin tribes. And I think it was Franklin and Jefferson and some of those guys that wrote that. They’re the ones that designed that and patterned that after those particular tribes.
MODERATOR: And Rebecca, perhaps you might have some resources at the Smithsonian that you could share with Pearl and we can pass that on to her.
MS TRAUTMANN: Sure. And I – the one thing I wanted to mention is that the – at the National Museum of the American Indian, we currently have an exhibition called Nation to Nation that focuses on the history of treaties, treaty relationships between the United States and Native nations. And so that is an excellent resource.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that, Rebecca. We have come to the end of our time, so with that, we will conclude today’s briefing. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State and the Washington Foreign Press Center, I want to thank the Smithsonian Institutions and our briefers for giving their time today to brief the foreign press. Thank you and good morning.
MR PRATT: Thanks, Jennifer. Bye, Rebecca.
MS TRAUTMANN: Thank you very much, Jennifer. Thank you, Harvey.
MR PRATT: Bye-bye.