U.S. Sen. Tom Udall
U.S. SENATE News:
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined committee chairman U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to convene an oversight hearing entitled, “Recognizing the Sacrifice: Honoring a Nation’s Promise to Native Veterans.”
VIDEO LINK: [Udall’s opening statement and questioning begins at 40:30]
“American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have shown profound dedication to protecting our freedom and national security through their military service. And, after working with the many Tribal leaders in New Mexico who are veterans, I know that when duty calls Indian Country always answers. Without question, Native veterans deserve our gratitude, our country’s recognition, and full access to the programs and resources we promise veterans,” Udall said in his opening statement.
Udall pressed Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on his agency’s commitment to fulfilling the federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Indian Tribes and Native Veterans. As Udall emphasized, the trust responsibility extends to every agency.
“What is your understanding of the federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Native Americans?” Udall asked. “What is the VA’s role in fulfilling it?”
“I always affirm the Tribal sovereignty of all of the nations and Tribes of the United States,” Wilkie said. “It is a government-to-government relationship. I am dealing with sovereign entities. My job is – in honoring that relationship – to provide as many resources as I can but also ensure a free flow of information … It’s long past time that we have a VA Tribal council that is on a day-to-day basis feeding us information on what is going on in those sovereign lands.”
The committee also received testimony on two bills to improve health care for Native American veterans, including the Udall-sponsored Health Care Access for Urban Native Veterans Act, designed to improve health care access for Native American veterans by providing VA coverage for care they receive from urban Indian organizations. The legislation is designed to facilitate Native American veterans’ access to culturally-competent care while reducing the burden on the VA health system.
Udall continued, “Is the VA committed to working with this Committee and IHS to ensure our shared trust and treaty responsibilities to all Native veterans – including those who live on and off the reservation – are fulfilled?”
“Yes, sir, absolutely,” Wilkie responded.
“My bill, S.2365, would correct a legislative oversight. It would ensure the VA is able to administer its IHS reimbursement program consistently for all Native veterans and in alignment with the principles of federal Indian health policy,” Udall said.
“I support that legislation as it pertains to urban Indian organizations,” Wilkie confirmed.
Udall’s opening statement as prepared for delivery is below:
Thank you, Chairman Hoeven, for calling today’s hearing.
American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have shown profound dedication to protecting our freedom and national security through their military service. And, after working with the many Tribal leaders in New Mexico who are veterans, I know firsthand that when duty calls Indian Country always answers.
Native veterans have earned nearly every service award and decoration our nation offers. They count among their ranks recipients of the Purple Heart, Service Cross Medals, and the Medal of Honor.
Without question, they deserve our gratitude, our country’s recognition, and full access to the programs and resources we promise veterans.
That is why I have worked hard on behalf of Native veterans for the twenty years I’ve been in Congress.
One of my first projects here in D.C. was working with Senator Bingaman to recognize Navajo Code Talkers with Congressional Gold Medals. From there, I made sure the Department of Defense corrected its over-taxation of Native veterans in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003 and introduced legislation to give Tribes resources to establish veteran cemeteries on trust lands.
As Vice Chairman of this Committee, I am continuing those efforts – working across the aisle and across Senate committees to put forward Native veterans’ legislation.
Senator Tester, as both the current Ranking Member of the Veterans Affairs Committee and former Chairman of this Committee, has been a true partner in helping me elevate this work in Senate. Together, we have introduced four Native veterans-focused bills – including:
- The Veterans Benefits and Transition Act, which became public law last year; and
- S.524, the VA Tribal Advisory Committee Act.
We have also worked with Chairman Hoeven and Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Isakson on S.257, the Tribal HUD-VASH Act. And, most recently, we’ve worked with Senator Moran on one of the bills up for consideration today – S.2365, the Health Care Access for Urban Native Veterans Act.
We developed each of these bills in concert with Native veterans, Tribes, and organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians; the National Indian Health Board; and the National Council of Urban Indian Health, to make sure these bills address the needs of all Native veterans – over 150,000 strong – whether they are living on the reservation or in a city.
My thanks goes out to everyone who has guided our work to ensure it is grounded in the principle of Tribal consultation and lives up to Congress’s trust and treaty responsibilities.
I also want to take a moment to recognize our two Tribal witnesses for their service in the Marine Corps and the Army. Like many Native veterans, Chairman Fox and Councilmen Dupree’s service did not end when they retired from the military. They returned home and continued to dedicate themselves to their communities. Thank you both; it is an honor to have you here today.
I am also glad that we have Secretary Wilkie here. I hope this hearing will help the VA, its federal partners, and this Committee re-dedicate to repaying the debt we owe to Native veterans.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for holding this important hearing.