Vice President Mike Pence addresses Native veterans at the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2019. Photo: White House

Native veterans head to Capitol Hill after event at White House

American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the U.S. military at the highest rates of any racial or ethnic group but their needs often go ignored or are overshadowed by other developments.

But with National Native American Heritage Month in full swing, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is hoping to put focus back on the first Americans. At a hearing on Wednesday afternoon, the panel will hear from a prominent Trump administration official -- Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie.

"You serve in the military of the United States at a higher rate than any group of Americans," Wilkie told the Alaska Federation of Natives at the group's annual conference in Anchorage last year. "Roughly 140,000 of America’s service members trace their ancestry back to America’s Native people."

The hearing comes a day after Wilkie and other military and Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, took part in a special conference in the nation's capital. They hosted dozens of Native veterans -- among them two tribal leaders who are testifying at the hearing -- in a packed room at the White House on Tuesday.

"Native Americans have bravely served our country in uniform and we are forever grateful for the contribution they have made to the life of our nation," Pence said in a post on social media. "Thank you for your service!"

Mark Fox, the chairman of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, and Jestin Dupree, a council member from the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, were among the veterans in attendance at the event. In addition to Pence and Wilkie, participants heard from several members of Trump's Cabinet about some of the issues affecting Native veterans.

"The opioid issue is lingering out there and it’s taking the lives of far too many people," Dupree said in a post on social media after the White House Conference on Supporting Contemporary Native American Veterans. He plans on sharing additional challenges facing Native veterans at the hearing on Wednesday.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs - Native Veterans’ Access to Healthcare - October 30, 2019

But while Wilkie is making his first appearance before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, some advocates wished he had showed up to Capitol Hill just a bit earlier. Witnesses at a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs late last month were bothered by the Trump administration's failure to send anyone to the proceeding.

"As a veteran, I'm disappointed that Secretary Robert Wilkie and Rear Admiral Weahkee will not be here today," Andy Joseph, a citizen of the Colville Tribes said of the Veterans Affairs leader and of Michael Weahkee, whom President Donald Trump has tapped to serve as his first director of the Indian Health Service, which works with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide services to Native veterans.

"Both Secretary Wilkie and the Rear Admiral have spoken about their desire to better serve the health needs of Native veterans," said Joseph, who testified on behalf of the National Indian Health Board on October 30. "We are counting on them and this administration."

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing takes place immediately following a business meeting at 2:30pm on Wednesday in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. In addition to discussing Native veterans issues, the panel will take testimony on the following bills:

S.1001, the Tribal Veterans Health Care Enhancement Act. The bill addresses the relationship between the Indian Health Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs, authorizing the IHS to pay for services rendered at the VA. S.1001 was introduced on April 3.

S.2365, the Health Care Access for Urban Native Veterans Act. The bill also addresses the relationship between the Indian Health Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs by authorizing the VA to pay for services Native veterans receive at urban Indian health centers. It was introduced on July 31.

The companion version, H.R.4153, was the subject of a September 19 hearing before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

The witness list for the hearing follows:

The Honorable Robert Wilkie
Secretary of Veteran Affairs
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs
Washington, DC

Dr. Kameron Matthews
Deputy Undersecretary for Community Care
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington, DC

Rear Admiral Chris Buchanan
Deputy Director, Indian Health Service
U.S. Department of Health and Human Service
Rockville, MD

The Honorable Mark Fox
Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation
New Town, ND

The Honorable Jestin Dupree
Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes
Popular, MT

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notices
Business Meeting to consider S. 227 & S. 982 (November 20, 2019)
Oversight Hearing on “Recognizing the Sacrifice: Honoring A Nation’s Promise to Native Veterans” & Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on S. 1001 & S. 2365 (November 20, 2019)

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