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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

White House Tribal Summit
Washington, DC
November 15, 2021

Thank you for that kind introduction. Thanks, as well, to the many other leaders from across the government who are here today—and to President Biden and Vice President Harris who brought us together for this great event.

Most of all, thanks to the Tribal leaders and elders with us today. I’m speaking to you from Tribal land this morning—because all this country is Tribal land. And I proudly greet you in the tradition of the Ojibwe people from my home state of Minnesota: Aniin and Hau.

You know, Veterans Day was just a few days ago, and I’ve been reflecting on the hundreds of thousands of Native Veterans throughout history who have fought and sacrificed for our freedoms, peace, and prosperity.

Vets like Charles Norman Shay, a Penobscot Tribal Elder and 97-year-old Veteran of World War II and Korea—and one of the first people to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Or Marcella LeBeau, a 102-year-old Lakota Elder who served in the Army Nurse Corps in World War II.

Or the 140,000 Native Veterans who get their care from VA.

Or the 24,000 American Indian and Alaskan Natives defending our freedom today.

As with all Veterans, our nation made those Native Vets a promise when they signed up to serve our country—a promise that if they served us, we would serve them when they transitioned out of the service, that if they fought for us, we would fight for them.

But for far too long, our nation broke that promise to them and, in turn, to all of you. And instead of receiving the care, benefits, and honor they deserved, those Native Veterans fought for freedoms and rights overseas that they did fully not enjoy here at home.

That’s a tragedy.

And while we cannot undo that dark history, we can make sure that it doesn’t repeat itself. So, I want to start by saying here and now that those days are over. In this administration, those promises will no longer be broken. 

Not on the President’s watch. And not on mine.

Native Vets will get the care, benefits, services, and honor they deserve—on Veterans Day, and every day.

There are so many ways in which we’re working to keep that promise, but I’ll just highlight a few this morning.

First, just last week, VA stood up the first ever Veterans Affairs Tribal Advisory Committee to help us collaborate on Native Veterans’ issues with those who best understand them.

Second, in order to ensure effective delivery of Native Veterans’ services, the Veterans Health Administration is establishing a new office to coordinate issues related to Tribal Veterans’ health. Our goal is to have the office up and running by March 2022, and we look forward to working with all of you to bring it to life.

Third, VA has developed the Tribal Representation Expansion Project to make sure that Native Veterans have access to Tribal representation before VA.

In 2017, the Department revised regulations to permit Tribal organizations to be recognized as Veterans Service Organizations, but these revisions did not result in a significant increase in representation as a result.

So, to continue to facilitate access and representation, we’re planning  to authorize certain Tribal Veterans Service Officers affiliated with Tribal governments to prepare, present, and prosecute Veterans’ benefit claims before VA. This will starting in early 2022.

And last but in no way least, we’re doing everything in our power to help Tribal Nations through the remainder of this pandemic—and to make sure that what happened over the last 18 months never happens again.

As a part of that effort, we’ve vaccinated more than half of American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans and cared for them with more than 88,000 telehealth visits.

We’ve signed a new Memorandum of Understanding between VHA and the Indian Health Service to improve access and outcomes for Native Vets and non-Vets alike.

And we’ve sent VA doctors, nurses, and clinicians to care for non-Vets in Indian Country as a part of our fourth mission—deploying 289 staff in support of Navajo Nation and IHS.

Altogether, these efforts will help us make sure that Native Vets always have an advocate at VA—and always get the benefits, care, and services at VA that they have earned and so rightly deserve. 

And look, we cannot—and would not—do any of that great work without you.

My commitment to you is that we won’t make any decisions about you, without you, that we are here for you, and that we will fight like hell, every day, to keep the promises to Native Vets—and to all of you—that our nation has broken for so long.

Because you deserve our very best. Native Veterans like Charles Norman Shay and Marcella LeBeau deserve our very best. And with President Biden leading the way, we will give you nothing less.

So, on behalf of all VA, thank you for your partnership and leadership of the nations you represent.

God bless you, and Native Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

I look forward to working with you today and every day to serve them as well as they have served us.