You might call Stephanie Birdwell one of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ most valuable players. She is the quarterback—making plays between VA and the 565 federally recognized American Indian tribes that span across the United States. As the Director of the Office of Tribal Government Relations, Ms. Birdwell has one goal: Bring VA to Indian Country.
American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans (AIANs)—from coast to coast—have one thing in common—they want to be heard. Twelve percent of AIANs in the United States are Veterans, comprising one of the highest per capita populations of Vets in any ethnic group. 10 percent of AIAN Veterans are female and fourteen percent of AIAN Veterans are living in poverty. Tribal communities are frequently located in rural areas, which make Veteran services difficult to reach. But Ms. Birdwell is determined to bridge that gap and ensure VA engages with tribal governments on a nation-to-nation basis.
In late 2009, Tammy Duckworth, former Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs started the first line of communication. She mailed out letters to tribal leaders, which started the conversation. In an effort to link AIAN Vets and VA, Ms. Duckworth hired Birdwell. As an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma with a history of working in Indian Affairs, Ms. Birdwell offers a unique view on the needs of AIAN Veterans.
When I sat down with Ms. Birdwell, her office was sprinkled with notes. A dry erase board listed her new office’s goals: Increase access to health care. Increase economic stability. Implement VA’s tribal consultation policy, signed by Secretary Shinseki on February 4 of this year. With over 200 tribes in Alaska alone, Ms. Birdwell set out to meet with key stakeholders including tribal leaders, Native American Veterans, State Veterans Affairs Directors, Veteran Service Organizations, and the Office of Rural Health.
“Tribal leaders and Veterans, many are one in the same, have been very welcoming,” said Birdwell. “They’ve been waiting a long time for this office to be established and are eager to move forward.”
Ms. Birdwell has a game plan—a plan she hopes will build trust between tribal leaders and VA. To increase access to health care, the office will bring information directly to AIAN Veterans with the help of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and blogs have the ability to provide up-to-date information to Vets in isolated, rural communities. The office also plans to host and attend annual listening sessions while traveling to conferences throughout the country.
Economic opportunities for Native Veterans and their families are also a great concern for VA. According to the 2009 American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample, AIAN Vets were less likely to be employed than all other minority Veterans and more likely to be uninsured. To increase economic sustainability, Ms. Birdwell is well aware that AIAN Vets need access to programs like Vocational Rehabilitation and the Post 9/11 GI Bill to gain education career skills. In addition, VA hopes to expand the development of small businesses and entrepreneurship opportunities throughout Indian country.
For VA to better understand tribal governments and its Veterans, it must educate itself. Implementation of the Tribal Consultation Policy by VA employees and VA facilities directly engaging with AIAN tribal governments and Vets will bridge the gap. The office and tribal leaders will work together to craft informed and relevant policies directly affecting the community.
“You need to understand the community you’re trying to reach out to,” said Birdwell. “A measure of our success will be how much we are able to increase VA access and awareness of benefits available for Vets in Indian Country.”
Last month, Ms. Birdwell visited Alaska and it was clear to her that AIAN Vets want the same things as every other Veteran; access to benefits and medical centers, information on VA home loans and employment, and help during the transition from servicemember to civilian.
In just over four months, the office has made progress. Ms. Birdwell has brought in four interns with various backgrounds—a law student, a social worker, a program manager, and a college student. Three of the women are American Indian and have brought their personal knowledge and experience to VA.
Kristi Woodard of the Colville Tribe is developing a regional snapshot of California. She will determine what type of collaborations and practices are occurring in Indian Country as it relates to VA and various tribal governments. Sarah Dill, a member of the Creek Nation tribe, is creating an overview of resources and services available for AIAN Veterans. Terry Bentley, Karuk Tribe, is collaborating with the Alaska Rural Health Program Manager to help develop the Alaska Rural Healthcare Strategic Outreach Plan for 2011-2015, which focuses specifically on Native Veterans in Alaska and will be subject to tribal consultation. She is also organizing a demographic snapshot which will tell the story of services available to AIAN Vets living in the Pacific Northwest. And finally, Rachel Ryan, of Cherokee heritage, is developing a resource guide for tribal governments to incorporate aspects of Veteran Treatment Courts in their justice systems. She will visit Navajo Nation, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo courts.
By the end of August, Ms. Birdwell hopes to have a fulltime staff. One employee will work at VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., while the other three will be located in various locations across the U.S. for maximum outreach.
Throughout the next year, the Office of Tribal Government Relations looks forward to becoming subject matter experts–knowing the ins and outs of VA programs and services available to AIAN Vets and working on how to deliver them. The office’s website will be re-launched in the coming months and will serve as a critical tool for maintaining lines of communication and celebrating the accomplishments of Indian Country’s warriors.
VA has a sacred trust to ensure those who have courageously served our country are once again served when they return home. The Office of Tribal Government Relations is honored to play a key role in carrying that mission to Veterans in Indian Country.
This week, Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Ms. Birdwell are meeting with tribal leaders and Veterans at the United Tribes Technical College on July 5 in Bismarck, ND. Over the next few days, they will also meet with tribal leaders in Montana. For more information on how the Administration is reaching Native American community, visit: Winning the Future: President Obama and The Native American Community.