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Former Colorado politician Nighthorse Campbell leads effort to honor Native American veterans

WASHINGTON D.C. – Ben Nighthorse Campbell – Korean War veteran, Olympic athlete and former Colorado politician – is honoring the service of his fellow Native American military veterans by helping to oversee the creation of a national memorial in their honor.

In 2013, Congress passed legislation approving the development of a Native American Veterans Memorial on the site of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Efforts are now underway to make that legislative goal a reality.

Campbell, who served three terms in the House of Representatives and two terms in the U.S. Senate, was named, along with Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, as co-chairman of the advisory committee overseeing the memorial’s construction earlier this year.

“I think, from our standpoint, the point of the memorial is twofold,” Campbell said during an interview Thursday with The Durango Herald. “To give our Native American youth an awareness of the importance of Native Americans in defending this country, and secondly, to give the public at large who do not know much about them more information.”

Campbell said the process will likely take about five years, as advisory committee and museum leaders work with veterans and tribes to develop a theme, design and the necessary funding to construct the memorial. The goal is to raise at least $10 million.

“The only parameters outlined right now are that it needs to be built on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian, and since they have limited land space, they’ll have to have something designed that fits into that existing piece of land,” Campbell said, adding that the committee is hoping to get as much input and feedback from veterans as possible in order to better share their experiences.

Back when he was still a member of the House of Representatives in 1989, Campbell introduced the authorizing legislation to establish the National Museum of the American Indian. Through his efforts in the House, as well as through the efforts of former Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the museum was officially opened 10 years later.

Campbell, who served as an air policeman in the Korean War and left the service in 1953 with the rank of Airman Second Class, said the veterans’ memorial would allow visitors to the museum better recognize the contributions and military service of all Native Americans throughout history.

“The first thing that usually comes to mind is the Navajo code talkers,” Campbell said. “But in fact, there were 16 tribes that had code talkers. Most people don’t have any idea who they were. But they were Choctaw and Chickasaw and Lakota Sioux and Apache, and many other tribes had code talkers. They just didn’t get the recognition that the Navajo did. And the Navajo certainly deserved it, too, but many others also deserve recognition for their experience in World War II.”

And the contributions of Native Americans in the military aren’t just limited to previous wars. Campbell said that about 1.1 percent of all Americans today are of Native American ancestry, but that 1.7 percent of active personnel in the military are Native American.

“We have a bigger proportion of Native Americans in the United States military than any other group in America,” Campbell said.

Although the process is just beginning, Campbell said he would like to see the memorial tell those personal stories of military service that have led thousands of Native Americans to join the armed forces. Throughout 2016, the advisory committee will begin the process of meeting with veterans to compile their stories of service to better shape the construction process moving forward.

“Now we’re beginning to take input from tribes and any Native American who would like to offer suggestions, but we’re particularly interested in the experiences of veterans,” Campbell said.

egraham@durangoherald.com. Edward Graham is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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