November is National Native American Heritage Month, a time when we share and celebrate the contributions and diverse native cultures that comprise the landscape of America. This month, as the country celebrated Veterans Day, the White House hosted the fifth annual Tribal Nations Conference, an event where tribal leaders engaged in government-to-government discussions with President Obama and senior officials from the administration regarding issues affecting Native Americans.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki addressed tribal leaders during the conference, and shared information about American Indians and Alaska natives who have long served the country with courage and distinction in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam.
These include U.S. Senator and Northern Cheyenne Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal member PFC Charles George – both who served in Korea. PFC George was posthumously presented the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and courage above and beyond the call of duty. The VA medical center in Asheville, N.C. is named in his honor.
Or, Hopi Specialist Lori Piestewa, a 23 year old mother of 2, who was the first Native American woman to die in combat and the first American woman to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I am personally connected to the legacy of bravery and tenacity that the secretary spoke of at the conference. I am a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the granddaughter of WWI and WWII Veterans and the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran.
Growing up, I observed first-hand the challenges our Veterans experience upon returning home from service. I remember my father accepted many late-night phone calls from the men he served with. They all shared experiences in combat that forged permanent bonds and relationships that would see them through not only their time in Vietnam but throughout their lives.
These men, and their sense of community, have always inspired me, so when the opportunity arose to help establish VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations, it opened the door to combine two of my passions: Working collaboratively with tribes to achieve opportunities for Indian people and serving our nation’s heroes.
Since then, our office has managed relationships between the VA and tribal governments across the country. We focus on implementing VA’s tribal consultation policy, promoting economic sustainability and facilitating increased access to care and benefits for Veterans living in tribal communities.
We work with VA colleagues across all three administrations to strengthen relationships, promote trust and expand partnerships with tribal leaders and Veteran service providers.
VA works with many key partners to achieve positive results and serve Veterans. Three years ago last month, VA and the Indian Health Service signed an updated memorandum of understanding which outlines a menu of potential collaboration points, but is tailored to meet the needs of local communities and Veterans. In December 2012, VA and IHS signed the national reimbursement agreement. One hundred and six Indian Health Service facilities reimbursement sites and VA also has reimbursement agreements established with 35 tribes and tribal entities.
To date, more than 2,000 eligible, enrolled Native American Veterans received a total of $1.8 million in VA reimbursed care, from Indian Health Service or tribal health programs. These partnerships are critical points of access for Veterans living in tribal communities. The relationships established as a result of these reimbursement agreements provide possibilities for partnerships that bring VA care closer to home, and support the existing health care delivery systems.
VA is expanding its home-based primary care program to reach tribal lands by co-locating staff and resources at Indian Health Service and tribal health facilities as well as supporting VA community based outpatient clinics adjacent to tribal lands. In remote areas, VA’s office of rural health dedicated $45 million to fund 101 projects over the last five years including mental health and PTSD treatment to mobile clinics, transportation, homeless projects and telehealth services that eliminate long commutes for chronically ill Native American Veterans.
Acoma Pueblo poet and Vietnam Veteran Simon J. Ortiz recently shared his VA experience with our secretary.
“I’m 72 years old and since 1995, I’m sober,” Ortiz said. “I gratefully owe a big, big measure of my sobriety to the VA hospital substance abuse programs. Acoma Vets took me to Fort Lyons VA in 1974 – I even began to write ‘From Sand Creek’ there. I went to Fort Lyons again in 1975, to Albuquerque and Tucson VA several times, and Hot Springs VA. ‘Thank you VA, I’m sober’ is my celebratory prayer.”
From Charles George to Ben Nighthorse to Simon Ortiz to Lori Piestewa to all of the Veterans in our lives; we collectively owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our warriors for the service and sacrifices each of them made for our country. Even if their contributions occurred generations ago, they are still relevant today.
By working together in our professional capacities as well as by considering how we can honor and serve Veterans on a personal level, we help Veterans and their families heal and move forward.
I believe this is also true of Native American Heritage Month as we celebrate and share our diverse native cultures and contributions. During this season in which we reflect on what we have to be thankful for, let’s remember to put our families, friendships, Veterans and rich cultural heritage at the top of our lists.