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May 27, 2013

Native American veterans push for recognition

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Navajo Code Talkers are legendary. Then there was Cpl. Ira Hamilton Hayes, the Pima Indian who became a symbol of courage and patriotism when he and his fellow Marines raised the flag over Iwo Jima in 1945.

Before World War II and in the decades since, tens of thousands of American Indians have enlisted in the Armed Forces to serve their country at a rate much greater than any other ethnicity.

Yet, among all the monuments and statues along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., not one stands in recognition.

A grassroots effort is brewing among tribes across the country to change that, while Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii has introduced legislation that would clear the way for the National Museum of the American Indian to begin raising private funds for a memorial.

“This is not a political gamble for anyone, and it’s not politically threatening for anyone,” said Jefferson Keel, a retired Army officer and president of the National Congress of American Indians. “This is something that both sides of the aisle can get behind and support, because it’s not going to cost a lot of money for the country. It’s just something that needs to be done.”

The push for a memorial can be traced back to the 1980s when the well-known Three Soldiers sculpture was unveiled near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Depicted are three American soldiers: one white, one black and one Hispanic.

During the Vietnam era, the federal government says more than 42,000 Native Americans served in the military and 90 percent of those service members were volunteers.

“I’ve come across veterans from throughout the whole country, from the East Coast all the way to California, and a lot of people believe that there should be something on the National Mall. We’re not there, we haven’t been recognized,” said Steven Bowers, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Seminole tribe in Florida.

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