Indian country is known far and wide for honoring its Native veterans. Yet, not all tribes have equal capability to get their veteran tribal members access to VA benefits.
“A lot of tribes are in remote areas, so a lot of veterans out in these spaces don’t have access to veteran’s service offices,” said Peter Vicaire (Mi’gmaw), a specialist with the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations. “Or, they choose not to work with veteran’s service officers because of cultural barriers or a cultural preference not to.”
This is about to change. With an upcoming change in the Code of Federal Regulations, tribes will soon have the opportunity to process VA eligibility applications for its Native veterans.
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Beginning March 21, a change in (38 CFR 14.628) will allow tribes to begin the initial process of employing their own accredited tribal service officer. For Native veterans, this would mean shorter travel distances as well as having a veteran’s representative who would understand them.
“It allows local agencies or entities to represent the veterans that are in their areas,” said Vicaire. “All this time, tribes haven’t been able to. Tribes were obligated to look elsewhere to be able to service their veterans by either a state, county or national organization. It’s important, in our opinion, to have somebody local that knows the community or population.”
The process of changing the regulation took over two years and included a consultation period with tribal government leaders. The rule was originally scheduled to go into effect February 21 but was delayed by a month “due to a hold on all pending [regulation] changes,” Vicaire said.
Tribes that pushed for the change are concentrated within the Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma. In the Northwest, Vicaire credits the Suquamish Tribe, Coeur d’Alene, Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation, Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. In Oklahoma, the tribes were the Choctaw Nation, Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Chickasaw Nation, and Muscogee Creek Nation.
According to Vicaire, the accreditation process is not easy. The application is handled through the VA Office of General Counsel and reinforces stringent guidelines that are required of state and county offices. Examples of documentation that OGC requires include records of both overall tribal membership and tribal veteran statistics, as well as proof of adequate funding—excluding grants—that would support a veteran’s service office.
“The VA Office of Tribal Government Relations can act as an initial buffer or person to accept these applications,” Vicaire said. “We can let them know what’s needed, let them know what’s required—documents and the paperwork they need to submit.”
The accreditation process can be lengthy, Vicaire said, with one year being a common timeframe. Issues that can make accreditation take longer include submitting incomplete documentation. Vicaire said that OTGR “is hoping to act as an intermediary to speed things along for tribal governments.”
While tribes cannot officially submit their application materials yet, many have been preparing ahead of time by partnering with state governments. Recently, Vicaire said the state of Oklahoma reinstated its partnership agreements with tribal veteran service offices, which would give the Muscogee Creek, Citizen Potawatomi, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations faster access for processing veteran applications. Three other Oklahoma tribes—the Cheyenne/Arapaho, Kiowa and Iowa—are in the beginning stages of an Oklahoma state partnership. Vicaire also said that both Washington and Michigan have also offered to partner with its areas tribes.
Unfortunately, some tribes may not qualify due to having a low number of Native veterans within their membership. Vicaire said that, in this case, tribes that are in close proximity to each other can create a combined veterans office, “something that other national/state/county organizations cannot do.”
“It’s a large endeavor,” Vicaire said about VA accreditation as a whole. “There’s a lot of things that have to be done. There’s a lot of paperwork that has to be submitted. It shouldn’t be taken lightly with the length of commitment that is needed. If and when [tribes] do decide to do it, they would really be helping their veterans.”