Images of service, strength: Indian veterans memorial dedicated in Pablo

2010-07-14T22:00:00Z 2010-07-15T05:56:35Z Images of service, strength: Indian veterans memorial dedicated in PabloBy VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
July 14, 2010 10:00 pm  • 

PABLO - The vision of the coyotes came to artist Corky Clairmont 20 years ago.

He just didn't know what it was for at the time.

On a warm Wednesday, hundreds of people saw part of Clairmont's vision etched in granite as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes dedicated the Clairmont-designed Warrior/Veterans Wall of Remembrance at Eagle Circle in front of tribal headquarters.

Tepee poles 65 feet tall rise over the memorial, and serve to welcome Indian veterans both alive and dead back home to their reservation.

Inside the monument, the head of an eagle occupies the tallest piece of granite, and other pieces form the wings that circle around to protect those inside.

On those inside walls, the names of more than 1,200 Indians from the Flathead Reservation who have served their nation are carved into the stone.

There's Louis Charlo, the young man from Evaro who help raise the first American flag on Iwo Jima in 1945, and was killed in action there a week later.

There's Francois Mayuk Caye, an Elmo native and one of 44 Indians from the Flathead Reservation to volunteer during World War I even though, as CSKT chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran noted, Indians had not yet even been granted U.S. citizenship and were not required to serve.

Outside the circle, on the back of the granite wall, a series of landscapes from the Flathead Reservation that all those people left in order to serve are woven together.

From Chief Cliff on the northern end, to Grey Wolf Peak on the south, Clairmont's artwork shows "the land we have lived on for thousands of years," he says - Indian villages, Wildhorse Island, the white clay cliffs on the Flathead River, the Garden Wall, McDonald Peak.

And in the middle, opposite the eagle head, is the coyote and her pups.

***

"It's one of the most significant panels, because it brings the tribes together," Clairmont explained after a colorful three-hour dedication ceremony that included a victory dance featuring countless veterans, and the firing of three arrows into a bright blue sky that were retrieved and presented to elders from the reservation's three tribes.

Coyotes, Clairmont said, play an important part in the stories handed down from generation to generation in all the tribes.

"The coyote teaches us our rules, our morality, our lessons to live by," Clairmont said. When talk began four years ago about a monument to Indian veterans at tribal headquarters, Clairmont - who heads the art department at nearby Salish Kootenai College - said he knew where his vision of the coyotes belonged.

The impressive memorial, Clairmont added, "is a small thing, compared to the sacrifices (veterans) made."

"I'd like to take credit for the whole thing, but I can't," he said, noting that many people, including veterans and elders, contributed ideas for the memorial.

The idea for including the 1,200 names, said CSKT facilities manager Sam Barber, came from a photograph inside tribal headquarters showing an Indian couple visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., where the names of more than 58,000 killed or missing in action in that war are listed.

"Why can't we do something like that?" Barber said someone asked.

The memorial, which Barber said cost the tribes $400,000 to construct, is a "living" one and has room for another 1,000 names to be added down the road.

Eventually, a nearby kiosk will have a computer where visitors can look up specific names from the memorial for more detailed information on each veteran.

***

From Clarence Whitworth, the first person listed on the first panel containing names, to Wayde D. Lester, the last name on the last panel, the 1,200 names are listed in no particular order.

There are, Clairmont noted, no tanks or guns, no ships or fighter planes, in the artwork. There is an Indian man and woman riding horseback - the woman with a baby in a cradleboard tied to her horse's side - and a pair of bison carved into the eagle's wings.

There are panels honoring Charlo and Caye, and also insignias for the Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and National Guard, each resting on top of eagle feathers.

"The eagle image is the strength of our nation," Clairmont said. "It wraps around you, protects you and watches over you."

Clairmont himself was never in the military, but his father was at Normandy and his brother served multiple tours in Vietnam.

Barney Clairmont, who enlisted in the Army in 1966 and served until 1973, never really successfully transitioned back into civilian life after Vietnam, Corky said.

"There's an adrenaline rush in combat, in the kind of service he was involved with," Clairmont said. "Like a lot of servicemen, he had trouble being a civilian once he got home. He was married, had a child, but there was trouble holding the family unit together."

Barney Clairmont died in a motorcycle accident in Polson in 1981, at the age of 33.

There are many stories, some with happy endings, some without, attached to all 1,200 names now etched in granite.

At Eagle Circle, their families now have a place they can go to remember, to mourn, to honor.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

 

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