The Visual Culture of Memorials for Indigenous Communities: Properly Recognizing Native Contributions to War
Across the globe, there are 370 million Indigenous people, accounting for about 5% of the world's population (Learn More about Indigenous People's Rights). Historically, indigenous people have experienced brutal destruction on their ancestral lands and culture. In the United States and Canada, the education system often fails to properly recognize native peoples to the extent that they should. At a young age, a lot of us in the US learned about "the pilgrims and Indians" and that "Columbus sailed the ocean blue", but we never learned about genocide, violence, or Indigenous contributions to our country (such as fighting in war).
Just as Native Americans are underrepresented in school curriculum, they are often underappreciated during military conflict. In fact, "Native Americans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War and in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group" (National Native American Veterans Memorial). Likewise, Aboriginal people have had great contributions in the fight for Canada’s freedom. Yet, Indigenous populations have never been widely recognized nor appreciated despite their great presence.
Most people do not put much thought into indigenous/ native communities or tend to assume them as peoples of the past. However, memorials and monuments show us that native peoples, though a minority, have contributed to society and are a bigger part of our historical past than we may realize. In this digital exhibit, I will argue that these memorials are a way for us to commemorate native peoples and acknowledge them because they have not always been recognized in the way they should.
“What do these repeated, resilient images tell us about how national identity is created and sustained and, in turn, what does such telling reveal about how rhetoric works?” (Olsen p23) “…strong identifications are formed and sustained in large part through their circulation in resilient commonplaces that provide a place of return for identification even in the midst of change.” (Olsen p24)
The National Native American Veterans Memorial
The National Native American Veterans Memorial was installed this year, despite Native American veterans having existed for decades of war. This memorial is the very first of its kind to honor the service of Native Americans on a national scale. "Though we celebrate those who dedicate themselves to defending our nation, many Americans are unaware of the exceptional service performed by American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native veterans" (National Native American Veterans Memorial), and the memorial sets to do just that. The design features a steel ring, incorporating water for ceremonies, benches for gathering, and lances to tie cloths to for remembrance. the space is calm and welcoming, aiming to educate the public about Native American contributions to defending the US (National Native American Veterans Memorial).
The memorial can be seen being installed through this impactful video:
The National Aboriginal Veterans Monument
The National Aboriginal Veterans Monument was presented in 2001. The design is very symbolic, featuring four warriors that represent the diversity of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people. Additionally, four animals represent Indigenous valued qualities, like sharp senses, tenacity, healing power, and family values. Lastly, the memorial is topped with an eagle, which symbolizes the spirit of Indigenous people in Canada.
The memorial honors the Indigenous men and women that defended the freedom of their country through multiple symbols, but does not let this method take away from the true meaning of the memorial (National Aboriginal Veterans Monument).
The Korean War Veterans Memorial
The Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1995 and honors all 5.8 million Americans who sacrificed in the US armed forces (Korean War Memorial), not just the Indigenous veterans of that group.
The memorial has statues identifying 19 troops of different services (army, marine, navy, air force) and race, but only one of those statues represents a Native American troop. The mural wall visualizes 38 statues of different services as well. The pool of remembrance includes flowing water and benches for reflection and education, as well as to remind that “Freedom is not free”. The honor roll, which is quite notable, contains the name of every military personnel that died during the Korean War, as well as their service, rank, service number, birth date, hometown, cause, and date of death. Lastly, the UN curb lists the 22 nations that participated in the war (Korean War Memorial).
In my exhibit, I show two memorials that commemorate Native war veterans: The National Native American Veterans Memorial and National Aboriginal Veterans Monument. As well as one memorial that commemorates all war veterans: Korean War Veterans Memorial. These three memorials all share the commonality of honoring war veterans.
Take the Korean War memorial as an outstanding exemplar of how certain groups of people should be honored and represented. It consists of multiple parts, each reiterating the service and dedication provided by American troops. Despite the large numbers – millions who served and thousands who died – the memorial and its parts work together to honor each person. One example being that it includes an honor roll of service members, putting a more human aspect to the memorial. The Korean War memorial honors every American who served, and has no honorable mention of the Native American soldiers as do the other two memorials.
On the other hand, the two Indigenous-specific memorials do not quite capture the attentiveness and effort that the Korean War Memorial radiates. Whereas the Korean War memorial emphasizes each individual (for example, including an actual honor roll), The Native American Veterans memorial and Aboriginal Veterans memorial do not quite capture that individuality. Perhaps, this is an example of how the visual culture surrounding Indigenous communities is less developed and the significant services of natives in war has historically been downplayed. The fact that the Native American Veterans memorial was not installed until this year, despite the fact that they fought war in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, contributes to the point that indigenous communities go unrecognized. However, the efforts of memorials like that one and the Aboriginal one move forward in making sure these people are recognized.
Remembrance, honor, and even grief are created and maintained through the visual rhetoric of these memorials. As Olsen touches on, the appearance of indigenous communities can help people remember and learn of the rich history and present of native peoples. Heightened awareness for Indigenous education through memory and monument are steps in the right direction in properly acknowledging that Native peoples did contribute to their country’s freedom and should still be recognized today.
“Korean War Memorial.” American Battle Monuments Commission, 28 Feb. 2018, koreanwarvetsmemorial.org/the-memorial/.
“Learn More about Indigenous People's Rights.” Indigenous Peoples | Amnesty International, www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/indigenous-peoples/.
“National Aboriginal Veterans Monument.” Veterans Affairs Canada, www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/national-inventory-canadian....
“National Native American Veterans Memorial: National Museum of the American Indian.” National Native American Veterans Memorial | National Museum of the American Indian, americanindian.si.edu/visit/washington/nnavm.
Olson, Christa J. Constitutive Visions: Indigeneity and Commonplaces of National Identity in Republican Ecuador. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.