DNC Natives highlight call for boarding school bill congressional hearings
Little resistance to the legislation, so why no Senate and House hearings to date, members ask.
WASHINGTON – Members of the Democratic National Committee Native Caucus are calling on U.S. lawmakers to immediately schedule hearings on legislation called the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, S. 2907 in the Senate and H.R. 5444 in the House.
Organizers said the legislation is intended to go deeper than the current focus of leaders with the U.S. Department of the Interior on historical boarding school atrocities faced by American Indigenous communities and their lingering impacts.
Key provisions of the bill call for the examination of the locations where Native children were sent to boarding schools, documentation of the ongoing effects of the institutions, and for provisions to locate church and government records related to the schools.
The legislation would also address how to go about accountability and truth seeking and pathways toward healing, organizers said.
There are distinctions between what Interior is currently doing with its Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and the intent of the legislation, noted Samuel Torres, deputy CEO of the National Native American Boarding School (NABS) Healing Coalition, during a virtual meeting of the DNC Native Caucus held on April 20.
“The [federal] initiative…is limited somewhat in scope because of the chronology – the time aspect – it was a 10-month investigation that was described and that was committed to,” Torres said. “It’s a remarkable venture – it’s a remarkable feat of the federal government – really beginning to scrape together a comprehensive-in-nature investigation.”
He called the federal effort — which is scheduled to soon release a report under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo – an important “first step,” but one that has limitations.
As a result of the pending legislation, Torres said he and others are hopeful that a commission will be formed that will “more robustly and substantively examine” the issue and hold culturally appropriate hearings and look at church and government records in order to learn more about the federal boarding school policy area.
“There are boarding school survivors who are waiting and willing to tell their stories right now, in the midst of a global pandemic,” Torres said. “The time to act with regard to this legislation is right now – we don’t have more time to be able to wait to find out when is a better time.”
Torres said that his non-profit organization has already identified over 400 institutions that served as boarding schools in the U.S. In 2016, when his group made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the federal government to try to obtain boarding school records, it was rebuffed.
There are currently 22 cosponsors for the legislation in the U.S. Senate and 56 cosponsors in the U.S. House, according to the coalition. One of those House cosponsors was the late Rep. Don Young (R-AK).
“There has really been very, very little – if any – pushback or resistance to this, and that’s both in Democratic and Republican congressional offices,” Torres shared. “This is an issue that we absolutely believe holds the possibility of being a true bipartisan issue because this is one of those issues that has affected everybody in Indian Country.”
Although there’s been positive feedback from Congress thus far, Torres lamented that both the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor have not scheduled hearings on the bill to date.
“The next step for us is really to hold this hearing,” Torres said. “We need to hold hearings, so that we can identify where those individuals [are] that might have resistance that we have really yet to see.”
Clara Pratte, chair of the DNC Native Caucus and a citizen of the Navajo Nation, encouraged attendees to visit boardingschoolhealing.org and to talk to their congressional representatives and senators about the importance of securing a hearing.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was expected to announce his support to become the twenty-third Senate cosponsor during the DNC Native Caucus meeting, but – due to technical difficulties he experienced while connecting virtually to the call from a car – no one could hear whether he did, in fact, sign on.
Veronica Watters, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Nation who works as a legislative assistant in Schumer’s office focused on Native affairs, is expected to soon clarify the senator’s position.
“Veronica Watters is great, and she’s also accessible, like I am to you, so please continue to work with her,” Schumer said during a snippet of his talk to the DNC Native Caucus that could be heard. “We’re with you all the way.”
Torres said he was grateful for Schumer’s attendance, and added that he looked forward to hearing definitively that the senator has signed on as a cosponsor.
“I’m sure when he cut out there, he was about to share with us that he was about to sign on to the bill as a cosponsor,” Torres said, with hope.
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