On May 25, just before Memorial Day weekend, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an Oversight hearing to discuss improvements to U.S. Government programs and services that assist American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian veterans. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) who is one of three U.S. Senators that is a veteran chaired the hearing.
During the hearing, committee members, representatives of the Veterans Administration, Indian Health Services and other tribal leaders in Indian country acknowledged the contributions of and discussed several topics affecting Native veterans. Testimony to include the need for better access to health care for Native vets in rural areas, affordable and adequate housing and improved communications between the Veterans Administration and Indian Health Services.
Akaka, a World War II veteran, opened the hearing by honoring indigenous service members, “It is fitting that we conduct this hearing before Memorial Day in remembrance of the service of Native veterans to our country,” he said.
After citing that Native veterans have served in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, more than two dozen Native veterans have received the Medal of Honor and that Native service members have the highest rates of service per capita than any other group in the nation, Akaka stated that his goal for the oversight hearing was that the United States had to meet it’s unique and dual responsibilities to Native service members as both veterans and as Indigenous Peoples.
In addition to Chairman Akaka’s opening remarks, Vice Chair Sen. John Barrasso (R.-WY) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) also expressed appreciation for the contributions of Native veterans and voiced concern that Native service members should have full support from the U.S. Government.
“The code talkers were instrumental during both World War I and World War II in defeating the enemy. Indian veterans deserve our respect and full access to the services afforded to all veterans – there have been long-standing challenges to receive the benefits that they are entitled to,” Barrasso said.
Franken added that Native vets living in rural areas face substantial challenges when seeking assistance from the VA and intended to introduce legislation to implement greater changes.
“I have a bill called the Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act – which I have introduced with Sen. [John] Boozman [R] of Arkansas to help the VA improve access to healthcare for all rural veterans which of course includes Native veterans,” Franken said.
Among those offering comments and testimony to the committee were Veterans Administration Office of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR) Director Stephanie Birdwell, Deputy Director of the IHS Randy Grinnell, National Museum of American Indians Director Kevin Gover and several other tribal leaders speaking on the behalf of Native veterans.
Birdwell stated the VA was honoring President Obama’s Memorandum on Tribal Consultation as a “critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-Tribal relationship” and that the OTGR has been charged to develop partnerships with tribal governments to enhance access to services and benefits for Native veterans.
“Trust is the single most important aspect in our relationship with the tribes and Native American veterans. VA is working to earn the trust of tribal leaders and Native American veterans through consistent outreach and an open door policy,” Birdwell said before touching on the importance of providing technical assistance for home loans and increased access to benefits.
Grinnell said Native veterans living in rural areas are at a disadvantage because IHS facilities were often closer than VA facilities and eligibility for benefits were inconsistent between the two. “A lot of feedback we receive from Native veterans has been that they feel like they are just shuffled between the two systems,” he said.
One possible solution offered by the IHS is a VA Reimbursement for Services Provided by IHS to eligible American Indian and Alaska Native veterans. Currently, the IHS and the VA are reviewing tribal input and plan to proceed soon with the demonstration and national implementation of the reimbursement agreement.
Gover’s supporting testimony highlighted several museum exhibits and initiatives honoring Native veterans. Pyramid Lake Paiute Chairman and U.S. Marine Veteran Wayne Burke expressed that services through the VA should be transparent and more accessible. Native American Housing Council Chairwoman Cheryl Causley that asked for the support of Native housing entities in their efforts to provide safe, decent, affordable, culturally appropriate housing. Native Hawaiian veteran D. Noelani Kalipi of the TiLeaf Group expressed the importance of energy and food security to Hawaiian people and how a veteran to farmer initiative could serve as a solution.