Twice in nine months, at least three members of Oregon’s congressional delegation have paid a visit to a little-known school in Salem run by the federal government.

The gate to Chemawa Indian School.

The gate to Chemawa Indian School.

Rob Manning/OPB

“The goal was to find out what the hell is going on,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, still fuming from a tense, 75-minute discussion at Chemawa Indian School, one of just four off-reservation boarding schools in the country.

Chemawa has drawn Native American teenagers to its Salem campus from all over the western U.S. since the 1880s, though its mission has changed away from its racist, assimilationist past. But tribal leaders and members of Oregon’s congressional delegation have been concerned that Chemawa is mismanaged and falling short of its mission, to serve as a refuge for Native youth, in search of stability and education.

Schrader visited the school Wednesday with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Sen. Jeff Merkley.

All three members came away disappointed and frustrated. Bonamici recalls reading up on Chemawa Tuesday night, before the visit.

Bonamici was disheartened to learn of Robert Lee Tillman, a teenager from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming who died last November, shortly after Chemawa kicked him out.

“I actually read Robert Tillman’s obituary, to just, you know, make it real that this is a student who was just at Chemawa not very long ago, and now he’s in a grave in Wyoming,” Bonamici said. “Fifteen years old — I’d love to know what happened and to know if there was a teacher there who said: ‘What’s happening? Why are you letting him go?’”

Bonamici compared Tillman to Flint Tall, a teenager from South Dakota whom OPB reported died after he was sent home from Chemawa, over the protests of one of his teachers.

Sixteen months ago, the six Democratic members of Oregon’s delegation wrote to a top official at the U.S. Department of Interior — the federal agency above Bureau of Indian Education schools like Chemawa. The delegation wanted answers to questions raised in OPB’s years-long investigation of the school, which found a slew of problems such as students dying after being expelled or shunned by the school, weak health and academic standards, retaliation against staff, and little financial transparency.

The conclusion for the three members who visited Wednesday is they’re not getting answers, and the pattern they’re seeing is that too little is changing — and too much remains the same.

The first time the Oregon delegation wrote to Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda, it took several months and a visit from four of those members to get a response — a response the delegation found inadequate. That visit in May 2018, which included the three who visited this week, plus Sen. Ron Wyden, prompted more questions, and another letter to the top of Interior. Again, no reply, until now.

“We had sent a letter almost a year ago and had not gotten a response,” said Schrader. “It was handed to us when we walked in that door.”

Also waiting for the three members of Congress when they arrived at Chemawa were two top federal officials: Tahsuda, who’d been the recipient of the two letters, and Tony Dearman, the director of the Bureau of Indian Education.

Each member of Congress had their own set of serious concerns about the operation and oversight of Oregon’s only BIE school. They agreed that the meeting with Tahsuda, Dearman and school administrators didn’t satisfy their concerns and that the next step is hearings on Capitol Hill, possibly in front of two committees.

Schrader is planning a hearing in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources because it has oversight of the Department of Interior. His focus is on what he and Sen. Merkley termed the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “gag rule.”

“We have whistleblower protections for every bloody federal employee throughout the United States government and [I’m] proud that they get a chance to speak their mind, except for Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian education,” said Schrader.

“They do not allow their folks to talk and that is wrong. We’re going to have hearings on that.”

It’s possible Chemawa could get brought in front of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, too, where Bonamici is vice ranking member. Her concerns include mental health services and discipline standards — basically the policies and supports that can either help students succeed, or kick them out. 

Sen. Jeff Merkley flipped through several spreadsheets of financial data given to him by school administrators. He scratched his head over the impenetrable rows and columns, looking for anything that conveyed information about Chemawa’s business efforts — such as the billboards the school owns along Interstate 5.

“One of the things we were concerned about a year ago was financial accountability and there are a number of for-profit activities conducted on or near the school and the people in the tribal community had raised concerns that the profits were not going to the students,” Merkley said. “We were handed a set of documents that you can not tell anything about what those for-profit activities were or where the money went.”

Merkley reiterated his concern that Chemawa doesn’t have an operating school board — a problem confirmed in the letter the members received, despite efforts by administrators. Merkley said he brought up the delegation’s suggestion from last May, that school administrators look at what other schools are doing and incorporate proven strategies.

“I could not tell that there had been any conversations of that nature,” Merkley said, saying he came away from Chemawa on Wednesday, “quite disappointed.”

“My sense … is that we’re viewed as an irritating inconvenience,” Merkley said as Schrader and Bonamici nodded in agreement. “This wasn’t viewed as an opportunity to discuss issues, and say, oh yeah, we could improve our financial practices.”

The members of Congress gave Chemawa credit for two steps in the right direction: that they’re addressing student mental health by hiring a social worker, and that they’re focusing on being more culturally relevant, by recruiting Native American staff, in part through a partnership with the University of Oregon.

But even on those fronts, the members aren’t convinced the school is making progress. For instance, Bonamici questioned the response letter saying Chemawa has used “trauma-informed practices,” for six years.

“They didn’t explain how that’s working or how that’s helping students,” said Bonamici.

“So I still have questions.”  

In addition to hearings on Capitol Hill, Schrader said they’ll return to Chemawa in a year to see how things are going.

“Hopefully not sooner because more bad stuff’s happening.”

Chemawa: In This Series

Chemawa Indian School is supposed to offer an academic home preparing students for college or careers in a safe and stable setting. It’s seen as a refuge for Native high schoolers across the West. But an OPB investigation found the Salem school struggles to spend taxpayer money wisely, educate students and even keep them safe. Concerned staff say they have been silenced and targeted by administrators in a hazy bureaucracy within the federal government.

Part 1: Life And Death At Chemawa

Part 2: What’s A Chemawa Diploma Really Worth?

Part 3: Former Chemawa Staff Say Concerns Were Met With Retaliation, Bullying

Part 4: Help Wanted: Questionable Hiring And Non-Native Administrators At Chemawa

Part 5: Behind The Fence, Chemawa’s Culture Of Secrecy