Four members of Oregon’s congressional delegation are giving top officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs a month and a half to provide what might seem simple: a map of federal land at the north end of Salem.
With Google maps and satellite images a keystroke away for anyone with a computer, how hard can it be to provide a map of the Chemawa Indian School?
Hard enough that Oregon's U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader wrote a letter to demand it.
The latest request follows more than a year and a half of different requests from Oregon's congressional members in the wake of an OPB investigation. The 2017 OPB series, and a subsequent hearing on Capitol Hill two months ago, revealed student health and safety problems at the boarding school — including four students who died shortly after being thrown out or blackballed by the school. Former staff and students also reported academic shortcomings, a pattern of retaliation toward people who raise concerns and a lack of transparency around school spending.
The latest step — a letter this month to assistant secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney — levels “concerns about abuse, fraud, and mismanagement at Chemawa Indian School.” The legislators emphasized a goal that “all students receive an academically rigorous and culturally informed education, are safe at school, and have access to health care and mental health care services.”
But congressional members say they have felt stymied and stonewalled by a confusing bureaucracy, even when they’re asking basic questions, such as who’s in charge of what on Chemawa’s large campus, where the school, athletic fields and dormitories share space with a cemetery, a health clinic and a tree farm.
“[T]he lack of certain basic information makes it difficult to have a productive conversation about how to address the challenges the school faces,” the letter said.
Take for example, the lack of an accurate, up-to-date map of the school.
The July 18 letter to Sweeney says the map officials provided is more than 50 years old and “is not accurate.” Among its errors: Buildings that are no longer on the campus, property that has transferred ownership and entire roads that have been constructed.
In an interview with OPB, Merkley said the lack of basic information made the simplest of improvements difficult.
“Maybe you need a new building, but can you build it?” Merkley said. “Everything is in disarray and uncertainty.”
The map Merkley and his Democratic colleagues want would lay out “which agency manages each part of the Chemawa campus, including establishing ownership and trust status of the underlying property as well as all individual facilities on the property.” The trust status may be of particular importance to the Grand Ronde and Siletz — nearby Oregon tribes that Merkley said also want this information.
“These questions originated with them,” Merkley said. “I am channelling their consternation and their frustration.”
Part of what the tribes and lawmakers are looking for is greater insight into how Chemawa's land is used — in part, to generate revenue. As OPB reported in 2017, Chemawa has long leased billboards along Interstate 5, and has leased a cell phone tower on campus. School administrators have also authorized a paintball business in the past, and they raised money by cutting and selling Christmas trees that grew on campus. OPB requested information on those fundraising ventures, but didn't receive any. The tribes and congressional leaders appear to be digging for information on those enterprises now.
The letter calls for a “comprehensive” list of which agency has oversight “over land and activities at Chemawa, including authorities to lease the billboards, cell tower, and Christmas tree farm, and to place ceremonial objects.”
Members of Congress also want to know more about the agreement between Chemawa and the Marion County Sheriff's Department, which provides a round-the-clock police presence at the school. According to public records provided to OPB, Marion County filed reports on 1,300 campus incidents between 2010 and 2017, including more than 200 acts of violence.
Merkley said the letter gives the Bureau of Indian Affairs 45 days to provide the requested documents. That timeline would coincide with Congress’ return from the summer recess after Labor Day. Merkley said he has gotten assurances from top federal officials that they can provide the information quickly, but given the slow and frustrating response over the last year and a half, he’s not optimistic.
“I will fall over if we actually get these documents when we come back,” Merkley said. “Because there’s just no record of the Bureau responding to the issues that we’ve raised and the information we’ve asked for.”