Written by Lynn Goya,
Recognizing the centuries of service by native tribal people long before the U.S. consisted of its current 50 states, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a new office to directly help veterans who are tribal decedents. In the announcement of the creation of the new Office of Tribal Government Relations, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki stated that, “There is a long, distinguished tradition of military service among tribal peoples. The VA is committed to providing these Veterans with the full range of VA programs, as befits their service to our nation.”
Native Americans have worked with the military for centuries. Congress first authorized the Army to recruit “Indians” in 1866 when it allowed the Calvary to recruit up to 1,000 scouts who would receive the same pay and allowances of calvary [sic] soldiers.“ Native Americans fought alongside the settlers in the slaughter known as the Pequot War (1634-1638). They sided with the revolutionaries in the Revolutionary War and the fought on both sides during the War of 1812. They fought as both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and became famous, decades later, as the Code Talkers during World War II. They fought, shoulder to hip, with other U.S. soldiers in the Mexican War and in every modern war since then including in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. Army recognizes their warrior status by regularly naming helicopters after native tribes, like the single-engine Bell OH-58 Kiowa.
More than 200,000 American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hawaiian Natives, or veterans within Alaska Native Corporations within 800 tribal governments are currently eligible to veterans benefits. Previously Native American veterans applied to the regular VA offices, but the new office is designed to strengthen and expand the current relationship with tribal leaders to make access easier for those living on tribal lands who depend upon the VA’s support.
The goal is to deepen the government’s relationship with tribal leaders while simplifying access to tribal veterans by removing impediments to the Department working directly and effectively with tribes. This will help VA administrators better understand when traditional tribal beliefs conflict with VA policy or practice.
The agency’s first director is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. Stephanie Elaine Birdwell, from Oklahoma, gained her experience working on tribal issues over 15 years as a social worker and at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. The administration says the six-person office will establish, maintain and coordinate a “nation-to-nation, federal-tribal relationship.”
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