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Schrader, Bonamici Demand Answers During Hearing into Chemawa Indian School

For over a year and a half, Congressman Kurt Schrader and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici have been pressing for answers from the Department of Interior (DOI) around serious allegations raised by an Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) investigative series about fraud, mismanagement, lack of transparency, and abuse at Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. The OPB series reported on the tragic deaths of three Chemawa students, one of whom died on campus, and two of whom died shortly after leaving the school.  A fourth student died after OPB’s series wdaas published.

Today, both Representatives continued to raise questions during the House Natural Resources Committee hearing titled “Investigating the Health and Safety Risks of Native Children at BIE Boarding Schools.” Reps. Schrader and Bonamici called for this hearing one month ago after repeated outreach to DOI’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), beginning in the fall of 2017, that has resulted in unsatisfactory and delayed responses. During this time, the members visited Chemawa twice.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda and BIE Director Tony Dearman, who are responsible for overseeing Chemawa and the three other federally-funded off-reservation Indian boarding schools, were invited to participate in today’s hearing but did not respond.

WATCH: Rep. Schrader questions first panel, and presses Indian Affairs’ representative during second panel.

“I am dismayed by the witnesses who refused to show up today, and that much more grateful for the courage and willingness of the witnesses who did,” said Rep. Schrader. “Their voices and perspectives are important, and I thank them for being with us today. It is totally unacceptable that the voices of Chemawa’s staff and students are still being silenced by the agency’s ‘gag rule,’ preventing them from speaking to their own representatives in Congress. We all share the common goal of wanting to make Chemawa a safe and supportive environment for Native students from across the West, ensuring that they and BIE staff have the resources and support necessary to provide the best academic and cultural education possible. Schools like Chemawa are critical to the success of students in Indian Country. I am hopeful that the conversations we had today will help us move closer toward this goal, and I look forward to continuing our collaboration long after this hearing is over.”

WATCH: Rep. Bonamici questions the first panel, including parents and former teachers, and questions the second panel.

At nearly every step in this process, my colleagues and I have been frustrated by a lack of transparency, regarding Chemawa’s finances, governance, and student safety,” said Rep. Bonamici. “I am also deeply disappointed to see that BIA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary John Tahsuda and BIE Director Tony Dearman are not here today to testify, despite an invitation from Chairman Grijalva and Chairman Gallego… The federal government has a responsibility to the school’s Native students, and it is my hope that today’s hearing will help us better understand what steps need to be taken to get Chemawa back on track, so that current and future students have every opportunity to grow and thrive academically in a safe, healthy, and supportive environment.”

WITNESSES: While Mr. Tahsuda and Mr. Dearman refused to participate in today’s hearing, the parents of two Chemawa students who died, two former Chemawa teachers, and the former Chair of the School Board were all among today’s participants. See the full list of witnesses here.

WATCH: Video of the full committee hearing here.

In November of 2017, Schrader and Bonamici led Members of the Oregon delegation in sending a letter to DOI laying out roughly a dozen questions about the school. After receiving an unsatisfactory response more than five months later, the Members visited the school in May of last year. Following that visit, the Representatives outlined 14 more detailed questions for Indian Affairs ranging from processes and policies to funding and financial oversight to the physical facilities and student wellbeing to the academic curriculum at the school. The response came nearly one year later only after a second scheduled visit to the school and, again, raised more questions than it answered.

Along with their more than 20 detailed written questions to DOI’s Indian Affairs, two visits to the school, and today’s hearing, the Members also sent letters to the Department of Education inquiring about the withholding of Title I funding from BIE, and to Indian Health Service raising concerns about the health and safety of students at Chemawa and asking questions about health care practices and communication between the health care facilities and the school.