Saturday, September 02, 2006

Bill Would Aid Cemeteries for Indian Veterans

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.