Four Democrats from Oregon’s congressional delegation are promising changes for Chemawa Indian School after meeting with tribal representatives and the federal school’s leadership in Salem.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader and leaders from seven Oregon tribes met Thursday to express concerns and press administrators for answers. That follows an OPB series last fall that documented long-standing concerns over student safety, academics, school management and finances.

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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 group emerged with both immediate and long-range plans to reform the country’s oldest federally run boarding school for Native youth: increased transparency, greater tribal involvement and a potential overhaul of the school’s governance.

“We have to get better governance, we have to have a ton more transparency, we need to see how this money is being accounted for,” Schrader said after the meeting.

One proposal involves a pilot program for Bureau of Indian Education schools that would turn Chemawa into a nonprofit with more tribal oversight and greater financial accountability.

“We’re talking about problems that have existed for a generation — in other words, decade after decade after decade,” Merkley said. “In that case, does there need to be a fundamental rethinking of how the school is governed and operated?”

Merkley added: “Is there not a better model to be copied from somewhere else in the country, so that these kids coming often from challenging backgrounds, can not have the school itself be a challenging place?”

As one result of Thursday’s meeting, tribal representatives have begun compiling a list of top concerns they want addressed along with possible solutions. They expect to send that list to lawmakers and the Bureau of Indian Education, which operates the school, within a month.

The delegation had previously sent a letter to the BIE seeking answers to many questions about academics, safety and management at Chemawa. The reply came four months later and left the lawmakers largely unsatisfied.

Cheryle Kennedy, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, is convening that meeting along with Dee Pigsley, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz.

More money is high on the list of concerns, Kennedy said, along with the lack of tribal representation among the academic staff.

“I believe that most of the tribes there expressed that the method for selecting faculty seemed to be not very open, because tribes had talked about they had tribal members who were teachers who weren’t hired,” said Kennedy, whose daughter graduated from Chemawa.

BIE Director Tony Dearman attended the meeting. On Friday, bureau spokeswoman Nedra Darling sent this statement on his behalf:

“The members were anxious to hear input directly from the school and tribal leaders on what challenges the delegation may be able to help with. The delegation’s priority is for transparency and accountability for the safety and quality of education for the Chemawa students.”

Lawmakers said they want more rigorous financial audits for Chemawa and possible legislation to increase transparency at the school. They said the lack of transparency hinders school staff’s ability to advocate for themselves and communicate needs.

Chemawa is one of four federal boarding schools for Native youth still operating in the United States and one of 183 schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education. Legislative reforms aimed at increasing transparency and oversight of Chemawa could ripple out to other schools similarly struggling within the bureaucracy.

Bonamici, a member of the House education committee, said a recent hearing on Chemawa prompted people at another bureau school to contact her office.

“This is not an issue that is only affecting Chemawa,” Bonamici said. “Some of the issues, the lack of transparency and lack of Native American staff, all those things are probably existent in the other schools as well.”

This is not the first attempt at reform.

The Bureau of Indian Education has been the subject of numerous reports from the Department of Interior Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office. Chemawa specifically has undergone previous investigations in the past, including one in 2006 after the death of a student in a holding cell and another six years ago triggered by concerns from staff members.

“We passed this way before. There was an investigation six years ago. And on the big questions — which comes down to safety, academics and transparency — we still haven’t gotten the results we need,” Wyden said. “There was a pretty good consensus amongst these tribes, which represent a majority of the tribes in Oregon, that they want to dig in and make this time different.”

Reforming Chemawa could prove difficult for multiple reasons. Under the Trump administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has experienced significant turmoil, including the sudden resignation of Director Bryan Rice in April.

And while tribes from within Oregon are taking a renewed interest in the management of the school, the vast majority of Chemawa’s students hail from outside the state.

Where Are Chemawa Students From?

Enrollment data for 2014-2015 shows that Chemawa students come from all over the west.

Source: Chemawa Indian School, 2014-2015

Bonamici said she asked Chemawa officials whether they consulted with schools that students had previously attended, to make sure academic standards and expectations were properly aligned. She said Chemawa leaders responded that was a nearly impossible task, with students coming from 80 tribes in numerous states.

“They don’t have the resources to do that,” Bonamici said.

In a similar vein, reform efforts involving dozens of tribes feels like more than the Oregon tribes can comfortably manage, in the view of Grand Ronde chair Kennedy.

“I believe that we’ll look back to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and say that they have a responsibility here themselves,” Kennedy said. “I can’t see the tribes of Oregon taking that issue on.”

A meeting at Chemawa

Federal lawmakers, tribes and the Bureau of Indian Education began a discussion Thursday about needed reforms at Chemawa Indian School in Salem. Here’s who participated:

Lawmakers

  • Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
  • Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Chemawa Administration

  • BIE Director Tony Dearman
  • Dearman Chief of Staff Juanita Mendoza
  • Chemawa Superintendent Lora Braucher
  • Academic Principal Amanda Ward
  • Assistant Principal Ryan Cox
  • Business Manager Rachenda Reynosa

Tribal Representation

  • Chairman Austin Greene, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs
  • Chief Joe Moses, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs
  • Chairwoman Dee Pigsley, Confederated Tribes of Siletz
  • Vice Chairman Bud Lane, Confederated Tribes of Siletz
  • Chairman Daniel Courtney, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians
  • Michael Rondau, CEO, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians
  • Chief Warren Brainard, Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians
  • Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde
  • Chairman Gary Burke, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
  • Chairman Brenda Meade, Coquille Indian Tribe
  • Angela Ramirez, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, Tribal Council
  • Loraine Butler, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, Tribal Council
  • Reggie Butler, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, Tribal Council
  • Lillie Butler, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, Tribal Council
  • Stacia Martin, Chief of Staff, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde