Tribal Government & News

Tribe hosts third Native Veterans Summit

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

The ultimate goal of the Native Veterans Summit, which was held for the third consecutive year on Friday and Saturday, July 10-11, at Uyxat Powwow Grounds as a complement to the Marcellus Norwest Memorial Veterans Powwow, is to provide resources, benefits coordination, health care and opportunities for healing and networking for veterans.

To help in that effort, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde held a pre-summit workshop on Thursday, July 9, in the Tribal Community Center to brief other Pacific Northwest Tribes on its agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that allows it to serve Native veterans through the Tribal health clinic.

Health care for Native veterans living in rural areas or in areas of the country without a Veterans Affairs hospital is problematic at best. Native veterans are three times more likely to live in highly rural areas than nonNative veterans, and aging Native veterans can find it difficult to travel long distances to reach a Veterans Affairs health care facility.

By allowing Tribal clinics to provide health care to Native veterans, as well as be reimbursed for that care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Tribes can help Native veterans living in rural areas who cannot access or travel to the Veterans Affairs facilities in Portland and the Tribes can save limited Indian Health Service funding to care for other members.

Mark Johnston, former head of the Grand Ronde Health & Wellness Center and current deputy executive director of the Coquille Tribe, returned to discuss veterans’ health care.

“Negotiating the MOU was real simple,” Johnston told an audience of about 30 people. “The harder part is getting Native veterans signed up with the VA.”

Johnston said the Department of Veterans Affairs protected sovereign immunity in negotiating the memorandum of understanding and reimburses Tribes for Native veterans’ health care at a high rate.

“Native veterans don’t have to leave the Reservation,” Johnston said. “They can see the providers they are used to seeing.”

“The big question,” Johnston said, “is where do Oregon Tribes go from here?” He said he would like to see the process of qualifying Native veterans for VA-approved health care streamlined, possibly allowing Tribes to decide who is eligible for VA-reimbursable care.

Also, Johnston said Veterans Affairs needs to help Tribes figure out how to serve nonNative veterans who live in the community as either spouses or residents, but also face the same logistical problems of accessing health care.

“I think that is one of the next logical steps that will require talking to legislators,” Johnston said.

In addition, Johnston said Tribes will need to talk to their federal representatives about more funding for the VA to treat veterans – Native and nonNative alike.

Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno said the idea of the Tribal health clinic serving Native veterans was inspired by the Grand Ronde Tribes’ desire to serve its World War II veterans, who were unable or unwilling to make the journey to Portland.

Leno said the MOU saves the Tribe Indian Health Service funds, which are then used to serve the rest of the membership.

“We are still working on being able to see any veteran,” Leno said.

Terry Bentley, Western Region Tribal Government Relations specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA currently has 79 reimbursement agreements with Tribes nationwide that reimburse direct care services for VA enrolled and eligible Native veterans.

She added that the agreements have reimbursed more than $22.6 million to Tribes for the care of more than 5,400 Native veterans.

Bentley distributed a packet to help any interested Tribe contact the VA about establishing a memorandum of understanding regarding Native veterans’ health care.

The workshop also was attended by Social Services Manager David Fullerton, who moderated the event, and General Manager Dawn Doar.

The workshop was followed by a reception and dinner at the Powwow Grounds and cultural sharing at achaf-hammi, the Tribal plankhouse.


Summit begins

The official summit kicked off a little after 9 a.m. Friday at the Powwow Grounds with the theme of “Honoring Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans,” warriors of America’s two most recent conflicts.

The Grand Ronde Honor Guard posted the colors and included Tribal Elders Alton Butler (eagle staff), Raymond Petite (Grand Ronde flag) and Brenda Tuomi (U.S. flag) as Grand Ronde drummers Bobby Mercier, Brian Krehbiel and Travis Stewart sang.

Elder Edmund Bull (Little Pine First Nation) gave the blessing and Grand Ronde Tribal Council member Jon A. George gave the invocation.

Morning speakers introduced by master of ceremonies and Navy veteran Nick Sixkiller included a welcome from Grand Ronde Tribal Chairman Reyn Leno, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War era, as well as speeches from JoAnne Krumberger, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System, and Terry Bentley (Karuk), Tribal Government Relations specialist for the Western Region with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Leno introduced Tribal Council members in attendance – George, Vice Chair Jack Giffen Jr., Tonya Gleason-Shepek and Ed Pearsall. He then complimented Tribal staff on the new arbor, which he said was one of the few things that all nine members of Tribal Council agreed on.

“When all nine members of Tribal Council agree on something, you might want to take action and do it,” Leno said. “It’s a beautiful arbor.”

Leno said the summit and powwow are his favorite events of the year because they recognize veterans.

“We wouldn’t get to do things like this if it wasn’t for our veterans,” Leno said. “I’ve always said if you can just help one veteran we’re successful. Numbers never bothered me. If you can help one veteran step up, because veterans are really tough, and go get their services and benefits.”

Leno also acknowledged his cousin, Thomas Elery Leno, who walked on Dec. 31, 2014, and became a statistic of Agent Orange. “It’s important that we get veterans to use their benefits, get their families to get them to use their benefits,” he said.

The Native Wellness Institute, based in Gresham, Ore., started the Veterans Summit in 2013 after receiving calls and messages from veterans or their family members seeking help for their healing and well-being, and the Grand Ronde Tribe has volunteered to host the event each year.

Krumberger, who is responsible for the health care of more than 97,000 veterans as director of the Portland Veterans Affairs facility, said that she would be willing to explain the new Choice Act, which allows enrolled veterans to access eligible non-VA health care entities if they cannot obtain an appointment within 30 days or live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility. The act was passed by Congress in reaction to last year’s controversy regarding health care access delays at VA facilities nationwide.

Native Wellness Institute Board of Directors member Charles Tail Feathers (Cree/Blackfeet) gave a welcome for the organization and explained why attendees were at the summit.

“Benefits for veterans is why we are here,” Tail Feathers said, adding that 80 percent of Native veterans do not receive their benefits from Veterans Affairs. “We’re tired of fighting this issue … let’s make some noise. Our goal is 0 percent. We want all of you to be served.”

As in previous summits, a somber ceremony to honor and remember those warriors still held captive or missing in action was read by Linda Woods (Ojibwe), an Air Force veteran. She then returned to talk about warrior women and her experiences serving in the military in the 1960s.

After a lunch and fun run/walk up to Fort Yamhill State Park, the summit returned in the afternoon with Yamhill County Veterans Service Officer Jerry Wilson talking about Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War that caused increased rates of cancer and other diseases among veterans who were exposed to it.

Wilson said that Agent Orange affected military personnel who served in both Korea and Vietnam and that Veterans Affairs has a list of 15 presumptive diseases caused by the chemical. He said that veterans who can prove they have one of those diseases and are “brown water” veterans of Vietnam can receive benefits for Agent Orange exposure.

“It’s one of the easiest disabilities to claim if you have the evidence,” Wilson said.

He added that diabetes type II and prostate cancer are the most frequent disease claims by veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

 Army veteran Rebecca Stone (Chickasaw), who is a certified suicide negotiator, discussed suicide prevention techniques for veterans and suggested any veteran contemplating taking their own life seek out an Elder or medicine man to talk to.

“By asking for help, you are making yourself and your family stronger,” she said.

Tail Feathers gifted Stone a Pendleton blanket for her trip out to Oregon from Maryland to make her presentation.

Meanwhile at the Grand Ronde Rodeo Grounds, John Spence (Gros Ventre/Sioux) offered equine therapy for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other health issues.

“With Native American veterans it is especially helpful to relate the spiritual nature of horses with a veteran’s natural and intuitive beliefs and Tribal identity,” Spence said in the summit’s information packet. “This knowledge has often been neglected or lost due to generational oppression, poverty, boarding schools, termination, family dysfunction, foster or adoptive placements, and wartime experiences of many veterans.”

Grand Ronde Health & Wellness Center employees staffed tables offering veterans blood pressure, dental and blood sugar checks. Drivers were available to take veterans to the health clinic upon referral from staff. Staff also had information about the Oregon Health Plan for veterans.

Information booths surrounding the outer edge of the arbor included the Yamhill County Veterans Service, U.S. Department of Justice, National Guard, Federal Bureau of Prisons, WorkSource Oregon and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Charles Nelson of Lexington, Ore., displayed his collection of World War II artifacts, which included a collection of dog tags, arm bands from American and German military personnel, and German knives, bayonets and swords.

Sharing circles and Healing Village activities concluded the afternoon before the summit segued into the first evening of the Veterans Powwow and a 6 p.m. dedication ceremony for the new arbor.

The summit continued on Saturday morning with a general session called “Let Your Voice Be Heard” and an honoring ceremony supervised by Tail Feathers before the summit officially concluded and the Veterans Powwow took over the Powwow Grounds for Saturday afternoon and evening grand entries.

Like in previous summits, all meals were provided by the Tribe.

Tribal Social Services Manager David Fullerton coordinated this year’s summit in cooperation with other Tribal programs, the Native Wellness Institute, the Native American Rehabilitation Association, the Department of Veterans Affairs, local veterans and Yamhill County representatives.