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December 18, 2017

A tradition of service: Captain Jefferson Keel

In 2020, the National Museum of the American Indian will honor Native American servicemen and women by building the National Native American Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Here, Captain Jefferson Keel (U.S. Army retired), a member of the memorial advisory committee, talks briefly about his experiences as a Native American in the U.S. military.

From 2015 until the summer of 2017, the advisory committee and the museum conducted 35 community consultations to seek input and support for the memorial. These events brought together tribal leaders, Native veterans, and community members from across the nation, and resulted in a shared vision and set of design principles for the National Native American Veterans Memorial. The design competition for the memorial is open until 3 p.m. Eastern time January 9. All information about the competition is available at https://nmai.si.edu/nnavm/memorial/. 

LtGov Keel Tomb Unknown Soldier
Jefferson Keel, Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Jefferson Keel

Thank you for serving as co-chair of the Veterans Memorial advisory committee. Please introduce yourself.

My name is Jefferson Keel. I am the Lieutenant Governor of my tribe, the Chickasaw Nation.

Where are you from?

I am originally from Tishomingo, Oklahoma.

Is the warrior culture strong in your family or tribe?

Yes, it is. I come from a long line of combat veterans, in my family and my tribe. My father served in World War I, where he received the Silver Star. I have uncles who served in both World War II and Korea, and brothers who served in the Air Force and Navy. My younger brother and I both served in Vietnam.

Why did you choose to serve in the armed forces?

The military appealed to me, and I could not wait to join. When I turned 16, I persuaded my mother to sign so that I could join the National Guard. I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger, so from there, I enlisted in the regular Army.

LtGov Keel Army Ranger
Jefferson Keel as a U.S. Army Ranger. Photo courtesy of Jefferson Keel

What years did you serve and where did you serve?

I joined the National Guard in 1963 and enlisted in the regular Army in March 1966. I served until 1974, when I returned to college and was commissioned and returned to active duty. I retired from active duty in 1989.

What was the highest rank you received?


Were there other Natives who served with you? Were you treated differently in the service because you are Native American?

There were a few other Native Americans. Mainly we were treated with curiosity.

Is there a story or incident that sticks out the most in your mind about your service?

I lost a lot of friends in Vietnam, but there are too many stories to try to recall any one in particular.

Where were you when your service ended?

I was a Combined Arms Tactics instructor at the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Are you a member of any veterans groups?

I am a member of the Chickasaw Warrior’s Society.

Would you recommend joining the service to your family members or others of your tribe?


In addition to being the lieutenant governor of your tribe, you’re the co-chairman of the Advisory Commitee to the National Native American Veterans Memorial. What made you want to support the memorial?

I think the memorial is a long-overdue tribute to one of the most underappreciated links to America’s heroes. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for this opportunity.

Thank you for giving the museum this interview, and thank you for helping build the National Native American Veteran’s Memorial.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.


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