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Native Veteran's Memorial

Conversation with Harvey Pratt, Designer of the National Native American Veterans Memorial

In this 2021 interview, Harvey Pratt describes how Native history, culture, and art inspired the design for National Native Americans Veterans Memorial. Watch as he discusses the significance and contributions of Native Americans in the Armed Forces.  

A Conversation with Harvey Pratt, Designer of the National Native American Veterans Memorial

Recorded May 19, 2020

[Van Heuvelen:]

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you all for joining us.
My name is Mandy Van Heuvelen. I'm Miniconjou Lakota and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe,
and I manage the cultural interpreter program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
I work to increase the public's knowledge, awareness, and appreciation of Native cultures through educational programming.
In addition to our exhibitions public programs and educational resources,
we are excited to be building the National Native American Veterans Memorial
on the grounds of the museum to honor Native veterans,
and bring awareness to the extraordinary service of Native men and women in the United States Armed Forces.
Today I am so excited to be speaking with the designer for our National Native American Veterans Memorial, Harvey Pratt.
Harvey is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma.
He's an artist, primarily a sculptor and painter.
He was a forensic artist for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for 30 years.
Harvey served in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1965,
and he was selected as the memorial designer in 2018 in a competition that had over 100 entries

[Harvey Pratt:]

Thank you, Mandy.
It's an honor to be here,
It's an honor to be here, and I want to thank the National Museum of the American Indian,
and I want to thank the design team, the architects and all the support people that made this possible.
I thank the people that donated to build this memorial,
I want to thank the construction people. We pray for those men that are out there working for now,
so that nobody's hurt during construction.
And we… It is an extremely hard for myself and my family. Thank you.

[Mandy Van Heuvelen:]

Thank you again Harvey, for joining us today.
I understand that the idea for the design of the memorial came to you in a dream,
and I was wondering if you could share a little bit more with us about what inspired you.

[Harvey Pratt:] Yes, thank you.
You know, I had attended two meetings in Oklahoma by the Smithsonian
to describe and and what the veterans wanted and I attended it with one of our veteran directors,
and he encouraged me to make a submission.
and I said, no I can't see it,
I said, there'll be people from architects, people from all over,
I said I would be wasting my time, and he said…
and he said…
he took me back a second time, and he said, come on Harvey, you need to do this.
He said, do it for the tribe and submit something.
He said, you know, it would be all right.
So I said, let me think about it.
And I said, and I'll go home. Let me dream on it and let me see what happens.
And so, that's exactly what I did.
The next morning, after I had dreamed about it, I got up, and I went downstairs,
and I got some paper, and I made some sketches of what I thought the memorial should be.
And I was trying to, trying to figure out how you could get
and I thought the way to do that was through ceremony and the spirituality of Native American people.
And so that's what I incorporated. A concept of elements of the wind and the fire and the water and the earth.
And ceremonies.
You know, we all go, have places you go to have ceremonies.
You go to church. There are special places on this earth that Indians go to, into the mountains and in the valleys.
And so I thought, you know, it has to be some place we go to. It has to be a destination.
And that was my general concept of the design.
That you had to go to, and not just walk through. I was a destination.
So that was my idea of the spirituality, of the ceremonies, that you go and prepare yourself.

[Mandy Van Heuvelen:] Thank you for sharing that, Harvey. It's such an amazing story
to think about the fact that you hadn't even intended on applying for the competition initially,
and now here we are just months away from dedicating this memorial,
and you speak about how this is a destination and a place you have to go and you have to visit,
and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about some of the specific design features
and the symbolism behind them–
the features such as the circle, the drum, and the lances.

[Harvey Pratt:] You know, since we're talking about destination, there's a path of life,
the way we conduct ourselves.
And so I have a path of life that leads from the museum itself to the memorial, the veterans memorial.
And as you walk this path of life, there's an audio system,
and you can hear the drumbeat, the rolling thunder of the drumbeat,
as it crescendos up into the thunder of the drums
as you're walking towards a memorial, and then when you get closer, you can hear softly
an Indian singing a flag song or a veteran song or memorial song and it's just quietly.
You hear that as you approach the actual ground of the memorial to warrior circle of honor.
And you can enter the warrior circle of honor either counter-clockwise or clockwise.
A lot of tribes have a certain ways that they enter a sacred ground or an area.
And I have a horizontal circle, a pathway that you can walk around,
and then you step inside another circle, where there's a seated area,
and you step in there, and you become in harmony with things, become in harmony with nature.
You become in harmony with the earth, with the spirits,
with the… as you step into harmony with all things, the animals…
You kind of absorb all of that energy from the directions.
And you have the entry from four directions. And we sometimes consider six directions.
And some tribes consider seven directions.
And so those are all in there. They're subtle, but it's in there. You'll recognize it.
And then, so, of the circle, the north, south, east, and west entryways.
And in between those you have the cardinal points.
The cardinal points. The southeast is the sacred color of white, where the sun comes up.
And you can start your day, every morning, with a prayer to the Creator,
and try to be a better person today than your were yesterday.
And then you look to the southwest. That's the color red where the Creator comes from,
shows his power, he comes from there, and we always remember him there at that point.
And then the northwest is the color yellow. And that's Mother Earth.
Everything that we have comes from Mother Earth. We have to honor the very earth we walk upon.
And you see the living and the breathing in the trees, as things move and the water flows
and the animals that have provided for us. That when we have to take the life of an animal,
we always pray for that animal and thank the Creator for giving us that opportunity.
And only take what you need.
And so we take of Mother Earth, and when we're born, and then when we die, we go back to Mother Earth.
And then the northeast is the color black, and that's our ancestry.
Our ancestors taught us all of our ceremonies. They taught us how to act and how to behave
and what to do and ceremonies that we have to remember our culture.
So those were the directions and the cardinal points, and when you step into there,
and you saw four lances, and the four lances have eagle feathers on them.
And those are the rewards that veterans won.
And that's how we count our awards. It's through these feathers, and they're attached to these lances.
And there's also rings on the lances where you can tie on prayer cloths.
Where you can tie a prayer cloth to the lance, and say a prayer for your loved one,
or your veteran who's in the military, or someone in the past, or grandchildren, or you're praying for somebody.
You pray over that little cloth, and you tie it to that lance,
and every time the wind blows that prayer goes out again.
So we have lances and prayer cloths, and when you step inside, you'll see a ten-foot round drum.
It's a stylized drum, and it has water flowing out of it.
And the water flows out and down the sides, and the drum calls the people.
You hear that drumbeat, and you know you must come to the drumbeat.
And that goes out across the land.
And the water that you flow… Nothing grows without water. Nothing grows without water.
Ceremonially, we drink water when we start ceremonies, so you'll have a good time.
You bless yourself with water, and so we have the water there for you for that.
We have the fire so you can warm yourself.
You can do your ceremonies with the fire, and you can make your offering, and say your prayers
to the air and give your offerings to the earth.
You can make offerings to the earth there
and pray for your loved ones and your family that's in the military.
And all of these things that's circled, that big steel circle with the fire growing out of it, is twelve foot high.
And actually, the circle represents the unity and the timelessness of this design.
The circles horizontally and the circle vertically, they're timeless things.
The images that are timeless. We recognize those things.
This design was specifically for Native Americans.
For them to understand and see where they can sit in there and be comfortable
and do their ceremony in private, or to be observed.
So, it's a hole in the sky where the Creator lives, and you send your prayers through that circle into the sky,
so that you pray for your veterans and your war mothers and your brothers,
and you sisters, men and women in the military. Those in the past.
And since this design was for Native Americans, I believe that my great-grandfather
could walk into that design, and he would recognize those symbols.
And veterans today walk in there, they will recognize those symbols, the elements
and the fire and the water, the air and the earth.
They'll recognize those things.
And my grandchildren's children will walk in there, and they'll still recognize those things.
It's not dated. It's timeless, with the circles and the elements.

[Mandy Van Heuvelen:] Thank you, Harvey, for that explanation.
I know that, for me, as a Lakota person and as the granddaughter of a World War II veteran,
this memorial has just so much meaning and symbolism for me, personally, and what you said
about past and future generations, recognizing the meaning behind this I think is really powerful.
I'm wondering if you could speak to what you hope our visitors, those who come to see this memorial,
what messages you'd like them to walk away with.

[Harvey Pratt:] I would like to be able to educate non-Natives,
that they would see these see these symbols, this memorial, and they will see Native people there
that have come. And they are going to do ceremonies.
And they can watch these people, men and women, maybe do a ceremony.
And I want them to be educated, so that they'll recognize it, that Native American people
have defended this land, this country, from the very beginning.
And that we're still here. We're still defending this land, or this country,
and I want people to see us here, and see the symbolism, and realize that
Native people are still here, and we're still defending this country.
Our blood has been poured all over this land, and now Native people are shedding their blood all over this earth.
So, I think those things are important to us and to the people that observe this,
and that they see we haven't forgotten our ways, and we're not letting people forget us,
and that Natives can come here and be healed and comforted.
They can say their prayers. It's healing to comfort, and strengthening, you know.
So many ceremonies are going to be done at this location,
that when you come here, you are going to feel that.
I strongly believe that you are going to feel an energy here, when you come in here,
because of all the things that are going to be done.
The sacrifices that they're going to make, and the pledges, and the prayers.
It's just going to be a place of power and comfort.

[Mandy Van Heuvelen:] Thank you for sharing that, Harvey.
Those are some really important messages that I hope all of those
who get to experience this memorial will come away with.
Now we're going to open up the program for some questions from the audience.
So if you do have a question again, please post it to the Q & A section
and not in the Chat section.
We'll just take a couple seconds here to see what questions are coming in for Harvey.
Harvey, the first question I see is, would you be able to tell us a little bit more
about the flame and the fire element.
You know, tribes have sacred fires.
You know, they use a fire when they… They'll burn their sage and their sweet grass and their other medicine
that they're going to use. They'll use those fires to start a sacred fire,
and we use a lot of… Fires are important in our ceremonies.
They're enduing, they strengthen you, they allow you to burn those things that are important to us.
And a lot of tribes use the fire in ceremonies, and you stay until the fire is out, you know.
And then you protect those ashes and those coals, you know.
And some of them take them home, you know, because they were used in ceremonies.
So, fire is important to us as Native people in doing our ceremonies.

[Mandy Van Heuvelen:] Thank you for that explanation.
Is it appropriate for a non-Native person to tie on the prayer cloth?

[Harvey Pratt:] That's good question. You know, I think that anybody can come there.
It's not… Even though it's designed for Native American veterans and their families,
we welcome non-Natives to come and to participate
and feel same energy and the power.
And if they want to tie a prayer cloth on, they can say a prayer,
and tie a prayer cloth on, or a medicine bundle, whatever they have.
You know, it's for Indians, but we want to share it with non-Indians.
We want them to have that same opportunity, and feel that same power and strength
that we are going to put into this memorial.
So it's important that people come and observe, observe us, and they are respectful to us,
and our ceremonies. And they want to learn, and we want to educate.
And I think that's part of it, to come there and be respectful of our ways.

[Mandy Van Heuvelen:] Harvey, would you just speak a little bit more to the water element, design element.
Water is important. It's an important element.
It's not just Native people, but all people use water to make things grow.
And we use water, we drink a little water and put a little water back into the earth in ceremonies,
so that our ceremony will develop and grow, and that ideas will develop and grow.
We drink a little water, pour a little water back on the ground,
and make offering of water.
And we bless ourselves with water. Water is a purifier. It cleanses.
So we bless ourselves with it. Same with the smoke. We breath ourselves with it,
and we bless others.
So the water is an important element in almost all cultures, you know,
to cleanse yourself, to bless yourself with water, and we use water in all our ceremonies.

[Mandy Van Heuvelen:] Thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions,
and help us understand a little bit more about the memorial and its design and the symbolism behind it.
So, I'm afraid that's all we have time for today, but I want to thank everyone for joining in.
And I wish you all a great afternoon. So thank you so much.

[Harvey Pratt:] Ah-ho.

In 2018, the National Museum of Veterans Memorial selected Harvey Pratt, artist, Vietnam Veteran, and citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, to design the national memorial. The memorial, located on the grounds of the National Museum of American Indian in Washington, D.C., honors the military service of Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian veterans. 

In this interview, Pratt reveals how he approached the task of designing a public memorial that preserves history but also honors living Native American cultures and traditions. “I was trying to figure out how to get 574 federally recognized tribes to agree on something without naming one particular tribe or name," he explains.   

Native people are still here, still defending this country

Pratt’s solution was a design that drew on the spirituality of Native religions. The memorial includes elements of wind, fire, water, and earth.  The design also incorporates communal traditions which allow visitors to pray and acknowledge the sacrifices of Native American veterans. Pratt hopes that the memorial will educate people on the sacrifices and experiences of Native Americans, but also be a place of significance for all. Pratt believes that the memorial will be a place of “power and comfort.”