Log In

Reset Password

Our View: Time for Native healing practices at VA

Southern Ute member Richards to bring overdue perspective

As reported in The Durango Herald on March 19, Gov. Jared Polis announced that former Southern Ute tribal leader Howard Richards Sr., a Vietnam War veteran, would join the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs.

As the saying goes, it’s been a long time coming. Too long.

Wanting state boards and commissions to represent all Colorado residents, Polis said it’s “really important to make sure the needs of our Native American veterans are met.”

Polis is right.

And now, the VA will hear exactly what Richards and his peers have been saying since the early 1980s – the VA must not only include traditional Native healing practices, whether for physical or mental ailments, but recognize their importance during evaluations. Also, acknowledge that families play a key role in the health plan.

“This has not been practiced in the VA to heal an Indian veteran,” Richards said.

Indigenous veterans are diagnosed and treated by doctors in an Anglo way. But “the process is not complete because we’re Native people,” Richards said. “We look at traditional healing as part of that process.”

Specifically, Richards wants conversations about sweat lodges; the importance of traditional medicine men unique to each tribe; ceremonies that include singing and dancing; and more.

Ideally, Native practices – including those healing wounds to the soul – would run parallel with what the VA offers.

Growing up on the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio, Richards took part in healing ceremonies. When Vietnam combat vets returned from the war, Native practices helped them adjust to the world.

Now, he goes to the VA in Grand Junction. He’ll have a medical evaluation, then visit a spiritual leader within his tribe. “But the two never marry,” he said.

If anyone will bring together these Indigenous and “white society” ways of moving toward better health, it’s Richards. He’ll bring much to the position.

In the early 1980s, Richards and a few other Vietnam vets started what eventually became the Southern Ute Veterans Association. They talked about health and the education of veterans.

At the time, many of them weren’t aware of the importance of holding onto particular documents. They were just glad to be out of Vietnam. They didn’t know about certain federal programs, including the GI Bill, until later.

Previously, there were discussions with Richards and others going to the VA. But none could connect at the “somewhat faceless” VA.

Now, the door has cracked open wider. In January, the VA responded to the federal Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs’ recommendations to improve Native veteran health.

In his role, Richards will also bring awareness to urban Natives with “nobody to speak for them.”

When asked how he got on Polis’ radar, Richards couldn’t help but be a little cheeky. Polis “looked over the San Juans and must have seen me with my hand under my chin” thinking, he said.

Nah. Actually, it was a government-to-government meeting with Richards and tribal Chairman Melvin J. Baker joining Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs Director David Callahan for a sit-down at the DoubleTree in Durango last year.

Richards and Baker emphasized the need for a tribal voice, whether from the Southern Utes or Ute Mountain Utes, on the board.

“I’m only one person and I’ll try to make a small difference,” he said. “I will do my best for all veterans and include Native people.”

We believe he will. Except we see Richards’ intention and efforts as making a significant difference. We look forward to the VA implementing what’s overdue to be done for Native veterans and their families.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango will host Jim Knotts, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, on Friday. A wreath-laying ceremony is at noon in Iris Park and a Vietnam veterans dinner is 6 to 9 p.m. at the VFW.