Would Aid Cemeteries for Indian Veterans
by Holli Chmela
WASHINGTON, Aug. 26 — Traditionally, when American Indians are killed in battle, their remains are returned to their tribal lands for burial.
But for the families of the many Indians who join the United States military, death brings a difficult choice: The veterans can be buried in a national veterans’ cemetery with fellow comrades in arms. Or they can be buried close to home on tribal land.
There is no way to do both.
The Native American Veterans Cemetery Act would change that.
Representative Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who wrote the bill, said it would authorize states to provide grants financed by the Department of Veterans Affairs for the development or improvement of veterans’ cemeteries on tribal land. At present, tribal governments are not eligible for department money.
In June, Mr. Udall’s measure was unanimously approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Both the House and the Senate included it in comprehensive veterans’ bills approved last month. The next step is for those bills to be reconciled by a conference committee after Congress returns in September.
Nearly 20,000 people classified as Native American/Alaskan Native are serving in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, according to the Defense Department’s most recent tally, from December 2005. By the end of 2006, there will be an estimated 181,361 Native American veterans, according to the V.A. The National Native American Veterans Association estimates that 22 percent of Native Americans 18 years or older are veterans.
“This is about recognizing that it’s not just states that have rights — tribes, too, should have rights,” Mr. Udall said in a recent interview.
There are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. New Mexico alone has 22 tribal reservations, and the population of Mr. Udall’s district is 19 percent Indian.
Explaining the importance of being buried close to home, Thomas Berry, a Navy veteran and a founder of the two-year-old National Native American Veterans Association, said tribes have sacred ceremonies and rituals to honor the dead and ease passage into the next life.
“If a Native American is buried in a national cemetery, a lot of the rituals cannot be performed because of coding restrictions and regulations,” Mr. Berry said. “So it’s important to us to have a place on tribal land to bury our veterans.”
Leo Chischilly, 57, the department manager for the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs in the Navajo capital, Window Rock, Ariz., said having veterans’ cemeteries on tribal land was a matter of practicality as well as tradition.
“The Navajo Nation would like to bury their loved ones within the four sacred mountains on Navajo land,” Mr. Chischilly said. “But the closest veterans’ cemetery is in Santa Fe, N.M., four hours’ drive from Window Rock. Some families visit the grave sites on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, but most people would prefer something closer to home.”
Some reservations have cemeteries dedicated to veterans, but they are maintained and paid for by the tribal organization or volunteers, not by the V.A.
Fort Defiance Veterans Cemetery in Arizona is one such example. It is full with more than 300 graves of Navajo veterans. Ten acres have been set aside in Chinle, Ariz., for a new veterans’ cemetery, Mr. Chischilly said, but money is needed.
“Hopefully if President Bush signs the legislation we can submit a proposal to get a veterans’ cemetery on the Navajo Nation,” Mr. Chischilly said. “We’ll be able to provide the land, but we will have to get other sources of funding for the operational costs.”
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