Democrats from Oregon’s congressional delegation are turning up the heat on federal officials responsible for Chemawa Indian School.
Lawmakers sent letters to three federal agencies last week demanding answers about management of the Native American boarding school in Salem.
The first letter sought answers to unresolved questions over school management from the Bureau of Indian Education. Two others posed questions about school funding and student healthcare from the Department of Education and Indian Health Services. U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader, Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio signed the letters along with U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.
Lawmakers asked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos why her agency continues to withhold funds from the Bureau of Indian Education. The withheld Title I funds are designed to help schools with low-income students.
“The Department should be working with the BIE to adhere to the federal trust responsibility to provide all American Indian students the opportunity to learn and achieve academic success,” the lawmakers wrote.
In a letter to Michael D. Weahkee of Indian Health Services, Oregon's delegation raised the issue of two student deaths on the Chemawa campus in the past 15 years, asking what can be done to improve the health outcomes of students at the school.
“Our understanding is that Chemawa administrators feel like they lack the necessary health information about the students to keep them safe and healthy on campus,” they wrote.
The delegation doubled down on its quest for answers out of the Bureau of Indian Education. Last fall, they sent the bureau a letter listing 14 questions in response to a series of OPB reports that documented long-standing concerns over student safety, academics, school management and finances.
Four lawmakers later visited the school in May, promising reforms would follow. Schrader said they are not yet satisfied with the answers they’ve gotten, and that the school’s lack of transparency has stymied them thus far.
“It was most galling to hear them in person tell me that they cannot tell members of Congress anything. That is complete BS,” Schrader said. He said he later checked with members of the subcommittee on Indian Affairs: “They’d never heard of any such thing, they thought it was totally preposterous."
Schrader and other lawmakers also called on the Bureau of Indian Education to end any policies prohibiting communication from school staff.
“I should be able to talk freely to the superintendent, who seemed genuinely concerned and interested with the school and the students,” Schrader said. “She flat-out told me she couldn’t talk to me. And put out a letter or some sort of notice, apparently, that none of the instructors are allowed to talk to us. I mean, that is wrong on so many levels.”
Leaders of most of Oregon’s nine federally-recognized tribes joined the congressional delegation at its May visit to Chemawa.
Wyden called on tribes to come up with a set of recommendations to reform the Salem boarding school — an effort that’s being led by the chairs of the Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes. Siletz tribal chair Delores Pigsley told OPB that the tribes haven’t come up with a proposal yet, but she said: “I put some priorities forward.”
Schrader has said he will call for a congressional hearing into Chemawa if he doesn’t get answers from federal officials “in the next few weeks.”