Cyclists on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes have a new viewpoint at the trailhead just north of Plummer, Idaho. On May 29, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe Veterans Memorial was dedicated. Gov. Butch Otter gave the keynote address and tribal veterans from across the U.S. attended the event.
After seeing photos of the magnificent steel sculpture created by Virgil “Smoker” Marchand of Omak, I knew I had to see it in person. So, last Friday I made a pilgrimage to Plummer.
And it didn’t disappoint. Visible from U.S. Highway 95, the exquisitely crafted warrior astride a horse holds a peace pipe aloft and gives testament to the proud Coeur d’Alene heritage of military service. Granite columns flank the sculpture, and behind it a semicircle of stones are engraved with the names of tribal veterans from every branch of the armed forces.
The project has been five years in the making. Ernie Stensgar, tribe vice chairman, said the location of the monument is important. Plummer and Agency Mountains serve as its panoramic backdrop. “Our veterans protected these hills from time immemorial,” he said.
Stensgar, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1968, was a driving force behind the creation of the memorial. “We have a sense of pride in those who served,” he said. “But more importantly, they were our family – our tribal members.”
Tribe spokesman Marc Stewart said American Indians have the highest rate of service per capita compared to other ethnic groups. There are 190,000 American Indian veterans in the U.S.
“I don’t think America looked at the price Native Americans paid for this country,” said Stensgar. “We paid in blood.”
Twenty-five-year-old John Dressler met me at the memorial. Dressler, a tribal police officer, served in the Marine Corps from 2003 to 2007. His father and his grandfather also served in the military. “I always dreamed of being a soldier,” said Dressler as we looked at the sculpture.
At 18, he enlisted in the Marines. “It was what I’d imagined and more,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. It breaks you down and you find the inner courage and strength you have.”
From Okinawa to Thailand and on to Kuwait and Iraq, Dressler saw the world courtesy of the military. He grew up in Plummer and said while in high school all he wanted was to get out of town. He laughed. “The minute I got in the Marine Corps, all I wanted was to be home.”
This place is important to him because it marks the contribution of his fellow tribal members. “People can see that we also fought in America’s wars. We are a giving tribe.”
While I visited with Dressler, several groups of cyclists stopped to rest. Some stretched out on the grass, while others dug cameras out of their saddlebags and snapped photos.
Dressler and his wife are expecting their first child, a boy, in October. “One day he’ll see my name here,” he said.
As Dressler left to resume his duties, I took one last stroll around the memorial. The wind whispered through the poplars and caused the flags to snap smartly. Two small girls ran down the path and stopped in front of the warrior. “Oh, look!” one shouted, and skipped over to touch the brightly colored tribal emblem. Then her tiny fingers traced the names, Aripa, Falcon, Seltice, Zachary…
I paused to read the inscription written for the warriors who died in the battle of Steptoe Butte. “Truth and equality is what they sought after but could not find in the newcomers to this land…. Their blood still resides on the prairie as a reminder not to take our life for granted.”
The wind picked up and a drifting cloud briefly shadowed the monument. The sound of chatting cyclists and laughing children faded. I closed my eyes and could almost hear long-ago echoes of other voices. The whispers of warriors, not forgotten, but honored here.
Like the little girls, I placed my hands on the sun-warmed granite. And I thought of Stensgar’s words. “It’s a sacred place. The names of our fallen are etched in stone – the price of freedom is great.”