WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A bill to help the federal government better serve American Indian and Alaska Native veterans is inching forward on Capitol Hill.
American Indians and Alaska Natives enlist in the U.S. military at the highest rates, per capita, of any racial or ethnic group. But the Department of Veterans Affairs is often criticized for not understanding or addressing their needs.
S.524, the Department of Veterans Affairs Tribal Advisory Committee Act, aims to improve the situation. The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, brings in a panel of Native veterans and tribal representatives to help the agency meet its duties to the first Americans.
“Strengthening the voices of Native American veterans will improve communication between the VA and tribal governments and ensure Native American veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), a co-sponsor of S.524.
Sinema serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which approved S.524 at a meeting in the nation's capital last Wednesday. Several members of the panel called attention to the unique status of Native veterans.
"Let's face it," said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). "These are communities that have not always been treated well by their own federal government -- sometimes horribly by their own federal government."
"And yet year after year, generation after generation, war after war, they serve at higher rates in the military than any other ethnic group in the country," said Sullivan. "It's unbelievable. It's remarkable."
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) pointed out that Native Hawaiians also step forward at high rates to defend their homelands. An amendment being worked into the bill ensures they can serve on the proposed advisory committee.
"Native Hawaiians are definitely Native peoples because they were there long before Captain Cook ever showed his face," Hirono said in reference to a European military figure who traveled to the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late 1700s and was killed there after attempting to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who was the sovereign nation's leader at the time.
The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs took testimony on S.524 at a hearing on May 22, 2019. An official from the Veterans Health Administration expressed the Trump administration's support for establishing a tribal advisory committee -- so long as the legislative branch comes up with an estimated $45,000 and $60,000 a year to pay for it.
"VA supports this bill as an opportunity to strengthen and potentially expand opportunities for partnerships between the department and tribal governments, provided Congress appropriates additional funds to support implementation," said Renee Oshinski, who serves as the Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management.
The bill earned a stronger endorsement later in the year when Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie made his first appearance before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. A number of S.524's supporters, including Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), who introduced it last February, serve on the panel.
"We believe that this will provide a formal structure and forum for VA to engage with tribal leadership and create many opportunities for collaboration to improve VA services to Native American veterans," Wilkie said of the measure.
Wilkie, who said his upbringing in Oklahoma brought him in close contact with tribes, noted that nearly 31,000 Native Americans are currently in active duty. Another 140,000 Native Americans are veterans of the armed forces.
S.524 isn't the only Native veterans bill awaiting further movement on Capitol Hill. Two of the more prominent ones address health care, an area where inadequate funding has contributed to negative outcomes among first Americans.
"It is vitally important that you increase the total funding available to tribes," Chairman Mark Fox of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, who is a veteran, told the committee last November.
The Native veterans health bills are:
• S.1001, the Tribal Veterans Health Care Enhancement Act. The bill authorizes the Indian Health Service to pay for care provided at the Department of Veterans. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took testimony on the bill on November 20.
• S.2365, the Health Care Access for Urban Native Veterans Act. The bill authorizes the Department of Veterans. to pay for services Native veterans receive at urban Indian health centers. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took testimony on the bill on November 20 and approved it for passage in the full U.S. Senate on December 11.