By Philip Kennicott
Art and architecture critic
Dec. 31, 2020 at 5:00 a.m. CST
The wetlands on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian are one of the most serene and magical spots in all of Washington. It counters by example the larger argument of the Mall, which is all about symmetry, extended vistas and monumental scale. With trees and grass and a bit of water, this garden is a quiet but forceful rejoinder to the bombast and imperial ambition that surrounds it. With a little imagination, you might pretend that somehow the great brush of history missed this one small spot where the landscape looks just as it did in pre-Columbian times.
The beauty of this secret garden — even if you know it exists, it always seems to take you by surprise — raised the stakes when the museum decided to place a new memorial to Native American veterans there. Originally, legislation authorizing the memorial placed it inside the museum. The good news, now that the memorial is open, is that the decision to place it outside appears not only inspired, but well executed.
Rather than an intrusion on the wetlands, the design by Harvey Pratt (of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma) instead invites you to enter more deeply into it. The one essential view — of the U.S. Capitol through a veil of trees, shrubs and grass — is unspoiled, and the larger experience is centered as much on a path through the landscape as on the thing that path leads to — the main sculptural elements at the center of a small, circular plaza.AD
The memorial itself is simple, and mostly abstract. A large steel circle is set perpendicular to a black masonry drum, which is animated by a gently flowing pool of water. On ceremonial occasions, including Veterans Day and Memorial Day, a flame at the base of the circle will be lit. Visitors approach the memorial, dubbed the “Warriors Circle of Honor,” via a short, elevated walkway framed by oxidized metal railings and passing by the seals of the five main branches of the U.S. military. Four spears or lances are set near the black drum and steel circle, and visitors and veterans are invited to attach cloth prayer ties to them. Small speakers add a subtle acoustic element, playing a loop of 13 Native American veterans songs from a Smithsonian Folkways recording.
Pratt’s design passes what might be called the “user’s manual test.” Since Maya Lin’s 1982 design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, memorial designers have flirted nervously with abstraction, introducing minimalist geometries and conceptual motifs while all too often overexplaining them, as if visitors need to be instructed on how to experience something that should be self-explanatory. Successful memorials function emotionally and intellectually, and invite reflection, even if you don’t know that say, the stars on the wall represent lives lost in battle, or that flame symbolizes sacrifice while water stands for hope and renewal.
Successful memorials are broad enough in their invitation to allow for considerable improvisation by visitors. That was already apparent the second time I visited the new memorial, where someone had left a unit medallion in the water and others had begun to tie cloths to the lances. And although you can find detailed explanation of the various memorial features online, it doesn’t really matter that the little walkway is the “Path of Life” and that the larger design is meant to incorporate the basic elements of fire, water, earth and wind. The Path of Life does its job — separating the visitor from the noise and distraction of the city — while the water, wind and earth are immediately tangible to the senses.AD
The ceremonial space at the end of the path is also appropriately formal without being oppressive or overbearing. The benches surrounding the space are inviting, and you don’t need to be told that they are for contemplation.
As the wetlands on the east side of the museum have matured in recent years, I’ve come to think of them as a kind of subtle and sophisticated irony. Someone, somehow, has managed to smuggle a bit of wildness into a landscape that is all about the human imposition of formality and order on nature. Wetlands are also known as swamps, and there is a long history of thinking of swamps not just as one of nature’s most unruly forms — something to be drained, filled in, leveled away — but also as a symbol for human disarray. “Drain the swamp” has become a generic call for vast political change, even though ecologically speaking, it is the last thing we should want to do.
So this lovely patch of swamp, which frames a surreal view of the Capitol in the distance, represents not just the persistence of an essential bit of nature, but also some kind of wildness that is always ready to erupt within the more ceremonial project of self-governance. Is that intended as a warning (beware of unruly energies that could disrupt government) or a promise (nature will outlast even the ambitions of man)?AD
The more you sit in this place, the more it seems like a promise, analogous to the survival and persistence of Native American culture through centuries of betrayal, theft and displacement. This new memorial is in harmony with that hope, and it focuses attention not just on sacrifice, but also on a far deeper and more essential question: What were these men and women fighting for?