Washington, DC
Thomson Reuters Foundation

It is one of the most recognisable memorials in the United States - a 24-metre-tall sculpture of six soldiers raising an American flag atop a mountain on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during World War II.

And it has a secret hiding in plain sight.

The Marine Corps War Memorial, which stands next to Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington DC, has long offered onlookers a dramatic and iconic image. 

But for Native Americans, the bronze soldiers carry special significance: The figure at the back of the group depicts Ira Hayes, a member of the Pima tribe from Arizona. 

Some worry that significance is lost on most people.

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A pair of US Marines attempt to untangle a wind-blown flag before a ceremony in honour the 64th anniversary of the raising of the US flag on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II, at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, on 23rd February, 2009. PICTURE: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Even as they gaze at the monument, tourists "overlook entirely" its reference to the role of America's Indigenous people in the battle at Iwo Jima, said Elizabeth Rule, assistant director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy.

So, she helped create an app to change that. The memorial is the first entry in the new Guide to Indigenous DC app, which takes users on a walking tour of Native American history - and ongoing presence - in the nation's capital.

Nearly seven million Native Americans live in the United States - making up about two per cent of the population, according to census figures.

"The focus on DC is mainly driven by the desire to educate people that the capital of the nation, the seat of government, is an Indian space."

- Elizabeth Rule, assistant director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy.

Most native lands in the country are governed as sovereign territories but continue to be administered, and legally held in trust, by the Federal Government.

That means that native communities have always had a unique relationship with Washington, said Renee Gokey, an education specialist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, one of the sites featured in the app.

The free app, which Rule designed in collaboration with others at the AT&T Center and with the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, features 17 sites around the city. 

"The focus on DC is mainly driven by the desire to educate people that the capital of the nation, the seat of government, is an Indian space," said Rule, who is a member of Oklahoma's Chickasaw Nation.

Like the rest of the United States, the Washington of today sits on land that had long been inhabited by Indigenous tribes - particularly a group called the Nacotchtank or Anacostans.

Rule's project draws attention to that physical history of the land. 

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Artist Joerael Elliott talks to Elizabeth Rule of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy about his mural in Washington, DC, in August. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

The guide's second site is a large island in the Potomac River that once hosted Nacotchtank settlements, while another site marks Indigenous artefacts found on the grounds of the White House. 

But the app, which launched in July, also leads walkers to history-making sites of the modern era, as well as statues of native figures in the US Capitol building, and traditional and contemporary artworks.

For example, the 14 kilometre tour takes users to the sites of key protests in 2014 and 2017 against a proposed oil pipeline in North Dakota, as well as the Embassy of Tribal Nations that opened in 2009.

"It's important to acknowledge...that native communities, leaders and other individuals have continued to come to Washington, DC, over the years on behalf of their people," said Gokey, a member of the Eastern Shawnee and Fox tribes. 

"This app provides a much-needed glimpse into American history, with a native twist," she said in emailed comments.

But the guide's broader focus on Washington's relationship with Native American communities has frustrated some who are determined to teach the public more about the city's original inhabitants.

"Unfortunately, the app misses a great deal about the Indigenous people of DC," said Armand Lione, director of the DC Native History Project, who has been working to increase knowledge about the Nacotchtank.

In addition to the island in the Potomac that is included in the guide, Lione refers to several sites around the city where members of the tribe lived, quarried and farmed, none of which are listed on the app.

"The app discusses landmarks of Indigenous people from many parts of the United States," he said, but "the Anacostans are the Native American tribe that is Indigenous to the land that is now Washington, DC".

One of the youngest stops on the tour is in the basement of the Corcoran art museum, where Joerael Elliott has painted a hallway-length mural depicting the history of the Piscataway community from the north of Washington, in what is now Maryland.

The work took place after research with indigenous community members, said the New Mexico-based artist, who is not Native American.

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Artist Joerael Elliott stands next to part of the mural he painted in Washington, DC, in August. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

Elliott is currently spearheading a global wall-painting project - which includes the new mural - to counter what he says is the divisive language of US President Donald Trump.

"Everywhere I go, I try to be aware of where I'm painting - what is the neighbourhood, who was here before, how can I represent the era I'm in?" he said.

Elliott sees the mural, which is to be formally opened to the public in October, as offering a collection of histories, myths and philosophies specific to the Piscataway but that are largely unknown to most of the public.

Works like his, he said, help to fight "a war of awareness" on behalf of the country's native peoples.

Rule is now thinking about how to expand the number of sites in the Guide to Indigenous DC app - and how to help other cities and native communities create similar guides for their own areas.

For her, one of the most important lessons the guide can teach is that the "conquest" of American Indians in the continent wasn't successful.

"Colonisation did happen, but this is still Indian land," she said.

"You might not have a placard or a monument, but Indian culture and people and history are inscribed all over the place."