DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A new monument opens today on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It's the Native American Veterans Memorial. Native Americans have served in the armed forces in high numbers for more than a century. This is the first memorial to honor that service. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The memorial is simple - a steel circle elevated over a carved stone drum. It sits in the shade of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Kevin Gover is a member of the Pawnee Nation and the museum's director.
KEVIN GOVER: It's an article of faith in Indian country that Native Americans serve at a greater rate than basically any other group. So we wish for this to be a sacred place, not just for Native America but for all Americans.
LAWRENCE: The opening ceremony went virtual because of the pandemic, but here are a few of the people Gover hopes will one day attend and sanctify the site.
MARCELLA LEBEAU: OK. My name is Marcella Bryant LeBeau, and I'm from the Two Kettle Band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Do you know I'm 101 years old now?
LAWRENCE: In 1944, Marcella LeBeau was a surgical nurse at an Army hospital during the Battle of the Bulge.
LEBEAU: Well, in December - I believe it was the 16 of December - the Germans overtook the American soldiers. They wondered about putting a hospital so close to the front lines, but they did. So we were there in Liege. And we had buzz bombs night and day at the time of the breakthrough, the Battle of the Bulge.
LAWRENCE: LeBeau says her own community always honored her military service. Now the memorial in Washington means the whole country can do the same.
LEBEAU: To me, I felt like it was a great honor. My ancestors were warriors. I'm related to Rain in the Face, who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Greasy Grass as they called it. My father was a Spanish American war veteran. My brother, oldest brother, was a veteran - all down the line.
LAWRENCE: But some Native vets aren't as aware of their own family's service.
WAYNE DON: Yeah, my name is Colonel Wayne Don.
LAWRENCE: Don has served 27 years in the Army, including Bosnia and Afghanistan.
DON: You know, for a lot of years, I thought I was a first-generation military person. Came to find out is both of my grandfathers and uncles had served in the Territorial Guard during World War II.
LAWRENCE: That was an emotional discovery for Don and a complicated one.
DON: Not just Native Americans, but so many other minority groups - ultimately, that they chose to serve, to represent their people and, also, to serve a country that, you know, sometimes didn't have what appeared to be their best interests in mind. But they still did it.
LAWRENCE: He says now that the country is wrestling with questions about racial justice, he hopes the memorial can play a part. Army vet Allen Hoe feels the same. He's Native Hawaiian, saw combat in Vietnam. Then his two sons served after 9/11. His oldest son, Nainoa Hoe, was killed in Iraq.
ALLEN HOE: And he was an incredible young man. He was an officer, platoon leader. And he was killed in 2005 in Mosul, Iraq. His younger brother's a staff sergeant. His name is Nakoa. And the meaning for Nakoa is a warrior who's brave and courageous.
LAWRENCE: Those are the stories of service and sacrifice he wants Americans to hear at the new memorial. For Native visitors, Hoe wants it to be a validation and an inspiration.
HOE: And then perhaps - who knows? - maybe some young Native son who experiences that memorial for the first time will be - you know, in 50 years from now, he'll be the president of the United States. Who knows?
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY YOUNGBLOOD'S "ABOVE THE MOTHER EARTH")
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