Principi salutes Native veterans
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FEBRUARY 23, 2001

Before an audience of tribal leaders which included a number of veterans, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi on Thursday saluted Indian Country's many warriors who eagerly defended the United States despite often receiving little or no recognition for their efforts.

"Great nations are judged by how they treat those who stood up for them," said Principi. "As President Coolidge once said about the men who served in World War I -- 'A nation which forgets their defenders will soon itself be forgotten.'"

Hoping not to let America suffer the same fate, Principi yesterday addressed about 300 tribal leaders at the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Washington, DC. In a speech which drew a standing ovation, Principi recounted the participation of tribal nations and their warriors from colonial times to the present.

Whether it was the Oneida and Tuscarora Nations who helped America gain independence or the hundreds of thousands who have served in the military since, Principi said the country owes a great debt to the tribal warriors who continue to "see duty today on the ramparts of freedom." He specifically noted that American Indians and Alaska Natives have served in numbers far beyond their representation in society.

In World War I, about 8,000 Native Americans fought to defend the country's interests. In World War II, ten times that amount -- about 80,000 men and women -- fought on the battle lines overseas and at home. Principi recognized such a feat as significant since the Native population at the time was only about 350,000, including children.

Not surprisingly, Principi highlighted the participation of the Navajo Code Talkers in helping win that war. But he also recalled that Comanche, Oneida, Ojibwe, and Hopi men served as Code Talkers and assisted the Allied effort during World War II.

As noted by Alaska Native veteran Marc Jacobs Jr., however, the government hasn't always recognized the achievements of Indian veterans. Having served on a Native American committee for the Department of Veterans Administration (VA) in Alaska, Jacobs told Principi that Native veterans have been unfairly denied Purple Hearts and other awards for their efforts.

Jacobs added that veterans in his state receive less than adequate service and often wait years to receive decisions on their disability claims, a problem Principi acknowledged needs fixing. Principi said his priorities at the VA include eliminating the backlog on claims.

Principi praised a number of partnerships and agreements the government has made with tribes and the Indian Health Service to provide culturally relevant services on and near reservations. Principi said the VA is working hard to ensure that Native veterans receive adequate health care, including mental counseling, so that the country lives up to its debt to them.

"We at the Department of Veterans Affairs honor the service of all Native American veterans," said Principi. "Native Americans did not hesitate to come to the aid of the United States when our nation needed them."

"In return, we need to be there when they need help."

Relevant Links:
The National Congress of American Indians -
Department of Veterans Affairs -