| Special to The Journal
Harvey Pratt had won a national competition for a coveted artistic commission.
He arrived in Washington, D.C., and was touring the grounds to identify the exact location where his vision would be executed when “a hawk showed up,” he remembers. It “flew in from the Southwest and landed right on that spot… and he danced around.” The hawk stayed in a tree above for “about an hour and everybody said, ‘That’s a good omen.'”
The sighting of that raptor was significant to Pratt. “My great-grandfather’s Indian name was Red-Tailed Hawk,” a name shared by Pratt’s deceased older brother, Charles. “I said, ‘That’s my ancestors coming down here to bless this [project].'” Pratt also remembers that the hawk showed up intermittently over the next few months, steadfastly observing the construction as it progressed.
Pratt, of Guthrie, Oklahoma, is also known as Wo-pet-nonoma. He is the artist who designed the National Native American Veterans Memorial which was unveiled on Veterans Day on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Located on the National Mall and within sight of the United States Capitol, this new memorial was intended by the artist to be a destination. “It is a place for people to come and interact,” said the artist who wants visitors to feel comfort and healing when they arrive.
Pratt’s credentials to create the memorial seemed perfectly suited on paper. He served as a Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam, is an accomplished artist and is Cheyenne-Arapaho. However, he felt under-qualified and was reluctant at first to submit a concept to the review committee.
“I belong to a Native American Legion Post and our veterans coordinator for the tribe said that the Smithsonian is interviewing Native people — they want to know what you think about the memorial,” recalls Pratt who needed some encouragement to attend that first meeting in Oklahoma in 2017.
At the end of the session, the coordinator from the post encouraged him to submit an idea, but he thought there would be stiff national competition including established architectural firms. He said, “No, it’s not for me,” and put the idea out of his mind until the Smithsonian representatives showed up several weeks later at another nearby location. Again, his veterans coordinator encouraged him to attend and afterwards, to submit a design.
“I didn’t really understand all of the rules,” remembers Pratt, who remained unmoved until the coordinator said. “You ought to do it for the tribe.” That resonated with Pratt who remembers thinking, “Let me dream on that.”
Pratt’s winning design “came to me in the early morning hours. It came to me quickly. It came overnight but I think it was supposed to be….It’s my whole life. It’s a composite of things that I’ve experienced and it all came together.”
In the end, Pratt teamed up with Hans and Torrey Butzer of Butzer Architects and Urbanism of Oklahoma City. Together, they employed a team of craftsman and landscape professionals to execute Pratt’s vision which incorporates important symbols from nature, along with the elements of wind, fire, earth and water.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a 12- foot stainless steel circle. It’s a shape that Pratt says reflects nature and echoes indigenous culture, “See the moon, the sun, the teepee, the hogans [Navajo dwellings], tree trunks, even a blade of grass,” says Pratt who also points out that the centerpiece symbolizes the life cycle and the circle of seasons.
The large circle rests upon a granite drum. “I wanted water to run out across the top of the drum and down the sides. We put two pumps in there; one to regulate the water and one to manipulate the water to make it look like a ripple along the edge.” The granite below the drum continues the same ripple design, “It looks like it’s expanding, expanding across the mall and going across the country and it’s calling the people to come to the drum, to come to the memorial.”
Other important visual symbols incorporated into Pratt’s design include a fire at the center of the circle which will be lit for important ceremonies. And lances where visitors can attach prayer ties. “When the wind blows, it shakes that prayer out again and it goes out to the veterans and their families and their war mothers,” he says, explaining their significance.
In a press release from the National Museum of the American Indian, Director Kevin Gover said, “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.”
Pratt wanted his design to resonate with all indigenous veterans from different traditions, now and into the future. “I wanted it not just to be for a specific battle or war. I wanted it to reach back into time and be current.“
Although Congress commissioned the National Native American Veterans Memorial, the $15-million project was funded completely through private donations. More than 85 tribes, individuals, corporations and other organizations contributed. Major support was received from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes; Chickasaw Nation; Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies; Poarch Band of Creek Indians; San Manuel Band of Mission Indians; and Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.
The opening of the Native American Veterans Memorial on Nov. 11 was a quiet celebration because of the pandemic. However, Harvey Pratt and his wife, Gina, flew out from Oklahoma to attend the event. “Nobody knew who we were, other than the employees at the museum,” remembers Pratt. Quietly, the two were able to hear comments among the small group that had gathered and the artist was pleased that his design “was doing what I hoped it would.“
Pratt is confident that people will come, and learn, and make sacrifices and pray for “veterans in the past, the present and the future… My grandkids and their kids will go and recognize all of those elements so it will be an ongoing, everlasting memorial that people will continue to recognize. Just like the circle, it’s endless.”
“Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces,” a virtual exhibit can be viewed at https://americanindian.si.edu/why-we-serve/.
“Native Words, Native Warriors,” an online educational program from the National Museum of the American Indian, can be found at https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/code-talkers/.
Do you know a living veteran who would be willing to share their story? Do you offer a program or service focused on serving retired military? Are you planning an event aimed at veterans or their families? Email Mary K. Talbot at [email protected]