Millions of people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and World War II Memorial in Washington each year, but they may not realize there's another important tribute just blocks away.
The National Native American Veterans Memorial, on the grounds of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, honors the many Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians who've served and sacrificed in every branch of the military through the years.
"They've served in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War, and often at a very high numbers, but those contributions haven't generally been known to the larger public or recognized," Rebecca Head Trautmann, the memorial's curator, told USA TODAY.
The memorial aims to change that.
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Where is the National Native American Veterans Memorial located?
The memorial sits just outside the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian building near Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW in Washington, along the National Mall.
There is separate from the American Indian Veterans National Memorial at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
When did it open?
The National Native American Veterans Memorial opened on Veterans Day 2020, but its official dedication was delayed by the pandemic.
"We worked with an advisory committee of Native veterans and family members who kind of advised us throughout the process, and they felt strongly that we should go ahead and open the memorial to the public once it was completed, even though we weren't at that time able to hold the in-person dedication," Trautmann explained.
This past Veterans Day, more than 1,500 Native American veterans and their families traveled to Washington for the dedication and a procession along the National Mall.
When can I visit?
The outdoor memorial is open to the public around the clock every day.
How much does it cost to visit?
Both the memorial and museum are free to visit. Neither requires tickets.
Who designed the memorial?
Harvey Pratt, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and an artist, designed the National Native American Veterans Memorial in collaboration with Butzer Architects and Urbanism.
What is the meaning behind the design?
In a conversation hosted and shared by the museum online, Pratt said, "This design was specifically for Native Americans."
He describes the path from the museum to the memorial as a path of life and the ground of the memorial itself as a warrior circle of honor.
"You can enter the warrior circle of honor either counterclockwise or clockwise," he said. "A lot of tribes have certain ways that they enter a sacred ground or an area."
Within the memorial, there's an inner circle with benches and four lances with eagle feathers representing awards veterans won.
"You step in there, and you become in harmony with things," he added. "You become in harmony with the earth, with the spirits ... with all things, the animals. You kind of absorb all of that energy from the directions."
At the heart of the memorial, a huge steel circle stands atop a round stylized drum. Pratt said the circle represents unity and timelessness, and the drum "calls the people" and has water flowing out of it.
"Nothing grows without water," he said passionately, adding that water is also used in Native blessings and ceremonies.
When is the memorial's flame lit?
The flame will only be lit on special occasions, like Memorial Day, Veterans Day and others.
"It will not be an eternal flame," Trautmann said. "We don't have a set schedule. We'll kind of treat them as they come."
The flame was first lit publicly during its dedication this past Veterans Day.
What are the strips of cloth tied around the memorial?
Visitors may tie prayer cloths to the lances around the memorial but should avoid touching other people's prayer cloths when they do.
"You pray over that little cloth and you tied it to that lance, and every time the wind blows, that prayer goes out again," Pratt said.
Trautmann said the prayer cloths are periodically removed in a culturally respectful way to make room for others.
Why aren't there any names on the memorial?
The nature of the memorial is meant to be inclusive and timeless, so it doesn't list specific veterans or tribal affiliations.
"This really sets it apart from other memorials, which generally focus on a particular conflict or a particular era or branch of service," Trautmann said.
The decision was based on feedback from Native veterans and tribal members the memorial's advisory group met across the country over the course of a year and a half.
Trautmann said they wanted to honor all Native veterans past, present and future. She said, "We also heard that we should recognize the sacrifices and support given by the families of those who serve."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National Native American Veterans Memorial honors centuries of service