A Good Year for Remembering the American Indian Alaska Native Veterans

“They volunteered in greater numbers than this country’s ever known. But, the freedom they fought for wasn’t theirs when they got home. They lie in humble graves and go unrecognized. …The American Indian Veteran — answered the call of the brave… So, tell me why there’s never been a monument to honor… The American Indian Veteran?”—“The American Indian Veteran” recorded and composed by Ray Sells.

Prospects are improving for construction of the nation’s first American Indian Alaska Native Veterans memorial, as the American Indian Alaska Native Veterans Memorial Committee (AIAN Veterans Memorial Committee), stepped up their campaign to make people aware of the failure of America to honor 200 years of courageous military contributions by the country’s original people.

According to Bo Mazzetti, honorary chairman of the committee, the non-profit organization, tasked with raising $3 million to install a memorial in Riverside National Cemetery, in Southern California, generated new support through a public education campaign. California tribal leaders hosted a tour of the memorial’s center-piece-monument –“The Gift,” and the group received key endorsements from elected officials, like California Gov. Jerry Brown. Entertainer Wayne Newton volunteered to be the memorial’s celebrity spokesperson, and the monument also got its own musical ballad –”The American Indian Veteran.”

“There’s new energy and a groundswell of interest in the memorial and our fundraising drive to make it happen. The more we tell people about the memorial, the more they wonder why there isn’t one. The answer is that Indians have to raise our own funds and construct our own monument”, the honorary chairman pointed out.

“The planned memorial for our veterans at Riverside National Cemetery has been too long coming. It’s time. This is the year to get it done!

“We want America to know that we too have a memorial that shows not just our pride – there is plenty of that—but a visible testimony where people will actually see and feel the sacrifices Indian people have made and continue to make for love of this country,” added Mazzetti.

Endeavoring to raise the $3 million cost to construct and install the memorial; the AIAN Veterans Memorial Committee took their campaign to California’s tribal-owned casinos and resorts.

Thanks to tribal leaders, who hosted the replica of the sculptured monument –”The Gift” — and the memorial presentation, the tour traveled to tribal casinos and resorts in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. The tour will be traveling north to Santa Barbara and Northern California counties.

Created to raise awareness of the memorial, the tour featured a ½-size replica of “The Gift,” the 12-foot bronze sculpture, which will be the focal point of the memorial. A profoundly passionate piece of work by the renowned artist, A. Thomas Schomberg, “The Gift” portrays a proud Indian robed in an American flag, mounted on a pedestal, and surrounded by 12 bronze, soaring eagles on pedestals.

Known as the “Arlington of the West,” Riverside National Cemetery, which has been designated the site of the AIAN memorial, is also is home to other prestigious memorials, including the Medal of Honor Memorial, the Veterans Memorial, and the POW/MIA Memorial.

According to Sharron Savage, AIAN Veterans Memorial Committee chairwoman, the purpose of the tour was not just about funding the memorial, but also to educate people about the extraordinary contribution of American Indian and Alaskan Native veterans in service of the United States.

“The response was amazing. People loved the replica of the statue. We had crowds; people stopping to take pictures and asking questions everywhere we went. They were shocked to learn that there was no federal recognition of the extraordinary military service of the American Indian people — people, who voluntarily served in WWI even though they did not have citizenship in their own country,” she noted.

The committee got another boost from Mr. Las Vegas — Wayne Newton. Newton, who is of Indian descent, signed on as celebrity sponsor of the memorial. Known for his contributions to the U.S. military, the United States Service Organizations (USO) — with more than 160 centers worldwide — named Newton to take the torch of chairman of the “USO Celebrity Circle” from another legend: Bob Hope.

Expressing gratitude to Newton for lending his name and time to honor American Indian veterans, Mazzetti, a veteran of the Vietnam War, thanked Newton for “helping to dedicate a sacred space of remembrance — a final resting place for those whose sacrifices have too long been overlooked.

“On behalf of our committee and Indian veterans throughout the US, I can only convey our heartfelt thanks,” he said.

Spreading the word, an advertising donation of $700,000, kicked off a three week, California radio campaign in March, featuring Newton’s endorsement of the memorial. Newton also recorded a public service announcement, which will be airing on television. He has also volunteered to help with fund-raising efforts, with the possibility of a concert in the future.

On April 8, the AIAN Veterans Committee, sponsored a traditional “Honoring and Cultural Ceremony” to bless the Riverside-Cemetery Memorial site. The event highlighted the area dedicated to the memorial, and memorial renderings. Numerous veterans’ dignitaries spoke at the event, including Donald E. Loudner (Hunkpati Sioux), CW4 (US ARMY, RET), National Commander, National American Indian Veterans, Inc., and Ricardo Reyes, California Undersecretary of Cal-Vets Minority Affairs.

“The Riverside Cemetery is located on land that was originally home to a number of Southern California Indians. The event was a traditional honoring and dedication of the land as sacred – a hallowed resting place for our veterans,” explained Mazzetti.

He went on to note that the cemetery is on Colorado Desert lands, which only became Riverside County in the 19th Century. It was home to diverse bands of California Indian people, including the Cahuilla, Gabrielino, Serrano, Luiseño, Chemehuevi, and Mojave tribes. Other Native Americans call the county home, including urban Indians from tribes throughout the nation.

“It was a moving event,” Mazzetti said. “American Indian-Alaska Native veterans’ flag corps, honoring drum groups, Bird Singers, Jingle dancers, spiritual and tribal leaders came together with veterans and their families to remember and pray for all who have served and bless the land that will become their earthly resting place.”

One of the highlights of the event was the introduction of the song, “The American Indian Veteran”– written specifically about the Riverside-AIAN memorial and performed by Jimmy Ray Sells, Nashville songwriter and Board Member of “Operation Song.”

The lyrics were written by Sells, Don Goodman, Operation Song Founder Bob Regan, and Commander Don Loudner. Sells previously performed another original song, “Arlington,” on Memorial Day, 2015, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In the ballad of the “The American Indian Veteran,” Sells asks, “Tell me why there has never been a monument to honor them?”

In the last chorus of the song, Sells depicts the sculpture, “The Gift,” finally at home in the memorial for the American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans.

“I see a statue of a proud warrior, winter wind and summer rains, standing vigil over all our heroes’ names. A bronze face of courage, a feather in his hair, old glory on his shoulders and on his lips a silent prayer… for The American Indian Veteran.

“They answered the call of the brave…Tell me why there has never been a monument that honors them?… The American Indian Veteran.”

“I think the chorus of the song pretty well sums things up. We are also asking ‘Why there is no memorial that honors them’?” lamented Mazzetti, adding, “The mission of the AIAN Veterans War Memorial Committee is to answer the question of, ‘Why not?’ with a, ‘Hell, yes!’ we are honoring our veterans with a memorial.”

He added, “We have all the plans and permits approved, the monument is commissioned and ready to be completed, and installed in one of the West Coast’s most prestigious, most beautiful and peaceful locations in the cemetery.

“With some financial help, next year, we can all come to a celebration to break ground on the first and only American Indian Veterans Memorial,” he said.