Col. Wayne Don’s $15M challenge

One of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s ranking National Guard officers is working for a national cause: raising funds for a National Native American Veterans Memorial. Col. Wayne Don, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations at the Alaska National Guard, is working with the Smithsonian Institution to promote the project.

(Photo courtesy Wayne Don)

The memorial, which is being called a “Circle of Warriors,” has been designed, but needs a total of $15 million from private sources to actually get built. It will stand on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and is designed to teach people about the role Native Americans have played in the military throughout the nation’s history.

Don, from Mekoryuk, says that learning about the role Alaska Natives played as the nation’s first line of defense after the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians during World War II revealed an aspect of his own family history he hadn’t considered before.

“I always considered myself first generation military person,” Don said. “But a number of years ago I picked up the book ‘Men of the Tundra.’ I was fascinated by how the United States military came up with this idea about enlisting Natives on the coast to act as scouts. At the end of the book is the role of my community. My grandfather had his name listed on the Nunivak Island roll, and all these other Elders in the community that had served. I never met my grandmother on my mother’s side, but he had served. His eldest son had served, and all of my mother’s older sisters, that all of their husbands had been in the Territorial Guard. And it was just an eye-opening experience for me personally because nobody had ever talked about it.”

During the World War II battle to kick the Japanese out of the Aleutians, it was members of the Territorial Guard, formed mostly of Alaska Natives by Lawrence “Muktuk” Marston, along with the Alaska Scouts, known as Castner’s Cutthroats, who spied on the Japanese and helped raid the Japanese encampments.

“They were hunters. Native trappers and guides, and people who knew how to live off the land,” Don said. “You know, it was a fascinating account of what they were able to do in terms of providing intelligence.”

The Alaska Scouts warned the military not to used wheeled vehicles in the battles to take back the Aleutians because of the terrain on Attu and nearby islands. The army ignored their advice. When the army bogged down, the Alaska Scouts kept the regular army troops alive by hunting, and feeding them during the tough campaign.

Native Americans have contributed to military efforts in the United States since the country began. Don, who has worked to get recognition for the members of the Territorial Guard, says that raising money for the National Native American Veterans Memorial turned out to be one of the easiest things he’s done.

“This project appeals to a lot of people. Almost everybody across Indian Country has somehow been touched by the military and military service, whether it’s family or friends. It’s been such a big part of Indian Country that the project sells itself,” Don said.

Several of Alaska’s Native corporations have already contributed to the project. Groundbreaking for the memorial is planned for 2019, with a dedication in 2020.

Johanna Eurich is a contributor for the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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