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Published December 26, 2013, 09:05 PM

Cramer, Heitkamp co-sponsor bills to move Native American Veterans’ Memorial forward

In the wee hours of the morning Dec. 20, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that helps turn a 20-year-old dream into reality, and North Dakota's two newest faces in Washington helped make it happen.

By: Katherine Grandstrand, Forum News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the wee hours of the morning Dec. 20, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that helps turn a 20-year-old dream into reality, and North Dakota's two newest faces in Washington helped make it happen.

Amendments to move the planned Native American Veterans’ Memorial outside the National Museum of the American Indian and allow it to stand on the National Mall in Washington were co-sponsored by Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. Both are in their first year in Congress.

The Native American Veterans' Memorial Amendments Act of 2013 unanimously passed the House on Dec. 11, with the Senate passing it shortly before going on Christmas break.

“For us, it’s really important because it just acknowledges and recognizes how we feel about the service to our country,” said Mark Fox, a tribal administrator for the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation and a Marine veteran. “I think it’s awesome because it acknowledges, and expresses appreciation too, for all veterans and all that serve in the military, but particularly the Native Americans.”

The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., serves on the Indian and Native Alaskan Affairs Subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee with Cramer and asked North Dakota’s lone representative to speak on behalf of the bill on the House floor this month.

“I think, in my mind, they’re just deserving of this special recognition and this opportunity to build a memorial not in their museum but outside their museum, right there on the Capitol mall so that all Americans that are visiting our nation’s capital can see their accomplishment and pay tribute to it,” Cramer said.

The memorial was approved by an act of Congress in 1994, and this month’s amendments authorized its construction on the National Museum of the American Indian’s grounds — it had previously been restricted to inside the museum. The amendments also allow the museum to participate in the selection of the design along with the National Congress of American Indians, and allow both the museum and Congress to raise funds for the memorial.

“I think it’s an acknowledgement — it’s an acknowledgement by their government and certainly hopefully by their congressman that we appreciate their contribution to America’s security and the liberties that we enjoy,” Cramer said. “And I hope they see that both as an encouragement as well as a recognition of their sacrifice.”

Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in the U.S.

“They serve in record numbers,” Heitkamp said. “Native Americans are 1.4 percent of the population, but they’re 1.7 percent of the military. Those are big numbers when you think of the numbers themselves.”

Honoring veterans takes center stage at Native American gatherings, Fox said.

“That’s the first thing that we acknowledge — our veterans and the flags,” Fox said. “Every time we have an event, we’re always recognizing our veterans — our warriors — for their service and what they do.”

When the West was being settled 150 years ago, American Indians were enemy No. 1 of the U.S. Army, but they served an integral part in World War II by the 1940s.

“During World War II, Native Americans still couldn’t vote in this country, but they volunteered as code talkers,” Heitkamp said. “You might think, ‘Oh, well, they were radioing.’ But they really were the spies. They were infiltrating and sending that intelligence back.

“Just as we talk about the Native languages and what a unique part of our military history that was during those engagements, what people probably don’t appreciate is that these were people who weren’t just on the front lines, they were behind the front lines.”

While military service is higher in areas of poverty, there is more to Native American military service than need, Cramer said.

“Oftentimes, military service is a result of lack of other opportunity for employment or revenue, so oftentimes poverty is a determining factor in military service,” Cramer said. “That being said, North Dakota has the least economic incentive for somebody to enlist and yet we, as a state, enlist at four times the national average.”

The amendments to a nearly 20-year-old bill will help the Native American Veterans’ Memorial become a permanent fixture in Washington.

“The fact that they’re so patriotic and fought and continue to fight in such incredible numbers on behalf of this country I just think it speaks volumes of their special dedication to military service,” Cramer said.

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