By Casey Kelly, KTOO News
The Alaska Legislature could join the chorus of voices calling for an American Indian Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. An Alaska Senate committee on Tuesday passed a resolution supporting the project.
Native Americans have fought in every United States military conflict since the Revolutionary War, and have some of the highest per capita service rates of any ethnic group.
Since Alaska became a U.S. territory and later a state, Alaska Natives have served their country as well. During World War II, the Alaska Territorial Guard included more than 6,000 volunteer soldiers from more than 100 communities.
“American Indians have established a long and distinguished legacy of military service,” said Kalyssa Maile, an intern in the office of Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. ”Senate Joint Resolution 19 affirms the Alaska Legislature’s support of Alaska Native and Native American veterans, and recognizes their great sacrifices for our country.”
Wielechowski sponsored SJR19, approved Tuesday by the Senate State Affairs Committee. He said the American Indian Veterans Memorial is supported by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the National Congress of American Indians and Vietnam Veterans of America, among other groups.
“There were several people that came up from Florida to attend AFN and push for this resolution,” Wielechowski said. “I attended the Vietnam Veterans of America national conference in Florida last year and they were there. I spoke with people there. They were urging us to do this as well.”
Congress approved the Native American Veterans’ Memorial Act in 1994, but the project didn’t go anywhere. Stephen Bowers, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a Vietnam veteran, started lobbying Native American groups to support the memorial in 2011. Bowers says it’s long overdue.
“It’ll mean that finally someone is recognizing the fact that the American Indians fought for this country and against the European invaders back since 1492,” he said.
While Bowers says many supporters want the memorial to be built near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, President Obama late last year signed legislation to place it at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, two miles away. Bowers says the location isn’t as important as getting a memorial concept approved, a process he says will take several years.
“When they built the National Mall, they didn’t make it easy for organizations or for anyone to put a statue or a memorial on the mall,” said Bowers.
He expects the National Museum of the American Indian to sponsor a contest and form a committee to shepherd the project through the design phase.
Senate Joint Resolution 19 now heads to a vote on the floor of the Alaska Senate.