Path of Honor: Remembering Native Veterans

Native Americans have served in every war since the Revolutionary War — they fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish American War, stormed the beaches of Normandy at D-Day, and have bravely served in every conflict since. Before tribal members were even considered citizens of the United States of America, they were fighting alongside the armed forces of our nation.

Today, 23,000 of the 1.2 million men and women on active duty in the U.S. military today are American Indians or Alaska Natives. On average, Native American communities serve in the branches of the US Military at a rate that is 5 times the national average compared to other demographic groups.

The Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes of Wyoming, is no exception. The community’s history of service, dedication, and sacrifice in times of conflict and peace is awe-inspiring. And this awe is now reflected in a beautifully-crafted memorial space in downtown Fort Washakie.

The Path of Honor project began in 2008 as a partnership between the Wind River Development Fund (WRDF) and the American Legion Post #81. The groups collaborated to build the Frank B. Wise Business Plaza, and received a planning grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund to design an accompanying memorial honoring the sacrifice of the Wind River Reservation’s brave veterans.

A thoughtfully designed memorial, the Path of Honor weaves together representations of specific Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho veterans on towering stones, an abstract outline of a bison — a cherished animal for both tribes — and a winding red stone path flanked by native landscaping. “In Indian culture, we believe that of the four directions, each has a purpose,” explained Scott Ratliff, a veteran and member of the planning team. “The West represents strength. The North is knowledge. The East is faith. And to the South, the Red Road to the afterlife that leads us to the Creator.” This belief is beautifully reflected underfoot as one travels the path among the memorial’s stones.

"I walked the path this morning, and it really is healing. We have scars,” Ratliff said, speaking of his fellow combat veterans. “And they don’t go away like magic, but this memorial is healing.” Many of the veterans in attendance spoke of the burdens of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the importance of community to help navigate the sometimes-dark aftermath of military service and sacrifice.

Designed by Wyoming artist Jon Cox, each of the massive stones is engraved with images of veterans and their experiences in a variety of wars. From a distance, the four stones align to represent a bison: “The buffalo has been a symbol that has stood for strength and courage,” explained Ratliff. “We see it as sort of the same symbol as a warrior. A warrior protects and provides, and so does the buffalo.”

In mid-August, over one hundred people gathered to celebrate the dedication of the Path of Honor memorial on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Over 1,000 service members or their families submitted names and memories to the Path of Honor memorial.

During the dedication, tribal veterans spoke about what the unique new monument meant to them. Lyle Wadda, member of Post #81, said, “It’s kind of unreal at times. A lot of groundwork has been done to make this happen. I appreciate everyone who has contributed to this.”

Felicia Antelope, a member of the Army’s elite Airborne Division, spoke to the power of memory that the Path of Honor represented. During her multiple tours in Iraq, she always felt the presence of those who had served before. “We all carried memories of our comrades, our friends, and the soldiers that came before us,” she said. “This is a dream. To touch, see, and remember all of these people. No one is forgotten — that’s the main thing.”

“I am absolutely in awe to think of the veterans who are here today, the spirit that is here with us today,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon. “I’m reminded on this beautiful Wyoming day, listening to the drummers, that veterans and the community on the Wind River Reservation are the heartbeat of this country.”

The Path of Honor, at its core, seeks to unify, include, and inspire all who walk its red stone path — encouraging us all to come together to learn about, preserve, and honor the incredible courage, commitment, and sacrifice of all Veterans who have lived on the Wind River Reservation.

“It’s a chance to love veterans the way they loved and helped all of us,” Scott Ratliff reflected at the end of the ceremony. “We are incredibly grateful to the 60 donors who have supported the construction of the memorial. We are eternally grateful to the Hughes Charitable Foundation for bringing the project home with their donation.”

“We were honored to have the opportunity to support this project,” said Molly Hughes, Executive Director of the Hughes Charitable Foundation. “It’s a powerful experience to be here and to understand firsthand what this space means to Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho veterans and their families. The Path of Honor will be an enduring and timeless testimonial to those who gave so much to protect our nation — and who previously have not received the recognition that they so deeply deserve.”