POSTED: 6:39 a.m. HST, May 26, 2013
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 statutes 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 a 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 Indian who 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.
Bowers is spearheading an effort to gain support from the nation's tribes to erect a soldier statue on the National Mall in recognition of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians who have served over the years.
His proposal calls for placing it prominently at the entrance of a planned education center at the Vietnam memorial — where millions of people visit each year — rather than at the Museum of the American Indian.
Numerous tribal organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, have signed on in support of the grassroots effort, and Bowers is hopeful the legislation introduced this week by Schatz doesn't complicate matters.
Jeff Begay, a Navajo and Vietnam veteran whose grandfather also served as a scout for the U.S. Army, said he prefers a memorial close to the heart of the National Mall.
"We feel that we don't want to be represented on the museum property because we're not relics anymore," he said. "We're not artifacts to be observed. We are real soldiers, we contributed to defense of this country, and we need to be honored in the Mall area."
John Garcia, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said he's been meeting with Native American leaders and believes that a memorial "is a real possibility" if land is located and private funds are raised.
Garcia estimated there are about 200,000 Native American veterans, and a memorial dedicated to them would be appropriate since they have been involved in every American war from the American Revolution to recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Supporters of the two efforts agree that a memorial in the capital city would help to raise awareness of the role Native veterans have played in the country's history.
"We're trying to instill pride in our heritage as original inhabitants of this land," Begay said. "We don't want our children to grow up with that concept that we're insignificant. We want to instill in them that they're important members of the American community, and they should be proud of that."
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras contributed to this report.