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New VA office to serve as advocate for tribal veterans

WASHINGTON -- Department of Veterans Affairs officials have announced the creation of a new Office of Tribal Government Relations to ensure the more than 200,000 veterans who are American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hawaiian Natives or are part of the Alaska Native Corporations receive the VA benefits they have earned.

"There is a long, distinguished tradition of military service among tribal peoples," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. "VA is committed to providing these Veterans with the full range of VA programs, as befits their service to our nation."

About 200,000 veterans are represented by the 800 tribal governments officially recognized by the U.S. Although VA officials have long provided benefits to veterans in tribal lands, the new office will further strengthen and expand that relationship.

Stephanie Elaine Birdwell, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation from Oklahoma, has been selected as the office's first director. A former social worker, she has spent nearly 15 years working on tribal issues with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, most recently, the Bureau of Indian Education.

She will oversee a six-person office responsible for "establishing, maintaining and coordinating a nation-to-nation, federal-tribal relationship," according to a VA briefing.

The office has a charter that officially extends to veterans who are American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Alaska Native Corporations.