Two months after a congressional committee held an emotional, sometimes-combative hearing on Chemawa Indian School, the Oregon representatives leading improvement efforts see few signs of progress.

“The wheels of justice move slowly, but I am committed to staying the course and doing what is right for these Native American students,” said U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, in a statement Tuesday.

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Chemawa Indian School

Chemawa is supposed to offer an academic home preparing students for college or careers in a safe and stable place. But an OPB investigation found the school is breaking its promise.

The federal government opened Chemawa Indian School in the 1880s, and almost the entire time it’s been located on the edge of Salem. It draws Native American students from all over the West, many of them from difficult situations on tribal reservations. The school began with a racist focus on assimilating Native students into western society, but that’s changed greatly over the years toward a goal of college preparation and cultural support.

However, a three-year investigation by OPB, published in 2017, found numerous problems at the federally run boarding school. Former teachers and parents of current and former students who died told a congressional committee in May that Chemawa had serious health and safety gaps. They pointed out academic weaknesses, lack of financial oversight and poor cultural support for Native youth often coming from hundreds of miles away. They told OPB and Congress that complaining regularly brought retaliation from the school.

Chemawa leaders didn’t attend the hearing, but in the weeks that followed, members of the Oregon delegation say they have come forward. 

“I am pleasantly surprised that officials at [Bureau of Indian Education] and Chemawa have reached out to the delegation and have been willing to sit down for frank conversations with us,” Schrader said.

In an opinion essay for the Statesman Journal, published last month, Chemawa Superintendent Lora Braucher simultaneously defended the school, emphasized the difficulties of serving incoming students from tough home lives, and committed to making improvements. 
 
“As we move into the future, Chemawa’s staff have dedicated great efforts in overcoming the unique challenges we face as a federal boarding school,” Braucher wrote. “As Chemawa’s leader, I will always welcome solutions for continuing to improve our school.”

The congressional reps are striking an encouraged, but skeptical tone. Schrader has been optimistic before, such as in a visit to the school in May 2018 when school staff promised to provide information. Schrader and his colleague Rep. Suzanne Bonamici found themselves waiting months for answers from federal authorities. In a statement to OPB, Bonamici appeared to be losing patience.

“We are calling on school leadership and the Trump administration to address concerns about student safety and wellbeing, and we are demanding that they make important strides to recruit and train native staff before the next school year begins,” Bonamici said. 

Bonamici has pressured Chemawa on health and safety protections in light of the deaths of four students in recent years — one on campus, and three shortly after being expelled or blacklisted from school. After visiting the school twice in the last 14 months and conducting a congressional hearing, Schrader and Bonamici say they’re committed to keeping the pressure on the school.

For over a year, Schrader has railed against federal officials and administrators at Chemawa for what he calls a “gag order,” prohibiting school staff from publicly discussing school issues, including with Schrader, whose district includes Chemawa. Congressional staff say they’ve heard from Chemawa leaders that there is no longer a “gag order.”

“BIE has confirmed to our offices that, before September, they will provide staff at Chemawa notice regarding communications with external parties, such as Congressional members,” according to an email sent by Schrader and Bonamici staff.

But given more than a year of little progress, interrupted by long waits for answers, Schrader is still skeptical.

“It appears that the gag order on teachers and students will be lifted, and we will keep a close eye on that, especially when the school year starts,” Schrader said.

At the May hearing on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress suggested possible legislative changes, such as creating an ombudsman to work with parents or creating a specific inspector general for the Bureau of Indian Education. Congressional staff said they’re hoping greater communication with current staff at the school will help inform future legislation. Changing federal law is certainly an option for Bonamici.

“I will continue to work with Rep. Schrader, students and their families, faculty, tribes and the broader Chemawa community to identify legislative solutions until all students receive an excellent and culturally informed education, are safe at school, and have access to needed health care and mental health care services,” Bonamici said.

Judging by statements from Bonamici, Schrader and the summary email from congressional staff, there are numerous questions Chemawa still hasn’t answered two months after the hearing and more than a year and a half after OPB’s investigation was published.

For instance, congressional members had follow up questions for Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Indian Affairs Mark Cruz after his appearance at the May hearing.

“As far as we know, to date neither the committee nor the representatives received a response from the Department of Interior,” said congressional staff.

Efforts at what congressional staff characterized as “ensuring an active school board structure at Chemawa, and focusing particularly on tribal engagement and ways to make it more representative” don’t appear to be moving quickly, either. Congressional staff said the response from BIE demonstrated the school and bureau were at the “thinking through the process” stage.

Four members of Oregon’s congressional delegation — Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley as well as Bonamici and Schrader — have together paid two oversight visits to Chemawa. They’ve all expressed interest in better financial transparency. But again, that’s an area where efforts have not yielded results, after well over a year of questions.

Congressional staff said the Department of Interior was asked about “oversight of Chemawa’s budget and facility deficiencies.”

“As far as we know, to date, the Appropriations Committee has not received a response from the Department of Interior.”